Year in Review: Towns struggle to overcome racism

Brattleboro Union High School students gather to show support for the Black Lives Matter flag being raised in front of the school in 2018. The BLM flag will not be flying in front of Bellows Falls Union High School due to a new policy that allows only the United States or the Vermont state flags to fly.

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WESTMINSTER — The Black Lives Matter flag won’t fly in front of Bellows Falls Union High School.

The BFUHS board unanimously adopted a new policy Monday night that restricts the flags flying in front of the high school to only the United States or the Vermont state flags. The new policy, which had been discussed previously, was adopted without any further discussion.

Several Vermont high schools, including Brattleboro Union High School, fly the BLM flag.

The vote came after Superintendent Andrew Haas read a letter from the Diversity and Equity Committee of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, endorsing an earlier suggestion by BFUHS junior Grace Waryas to start flying the flag as a sign of support to the school’s students of color.

The letter, dated June 16 and read aloud Monday evening at the board’s regular meeting, endorsed Waryas’ suggestion to fly the Black Lives Matter flag in front of the high school.

The Diversity and Equity Committee, which is chaired by BFUHS teacher Stuart Strothman and Central Elementary School Principal Kerry Kennedy, praised Waryas’ action.

The letter stated that it was “an official statement of support for Grace’s proposal,” and said “The Bellows Falls community is not immune” to problems of racism.

“She brought a very difficult issue to the forefront,” the letter stated.

The Diversity and Equity Committee is made up primarily of teachers, school staff and administrators, but there are also members of the community on the panel.

“All of us would benefit greatly from anti-bias and anti-racism training, as well as a well-oiled restorative practices machine,” the letter stated.

“With the support of the leadership in our district and expertise of the Greater Falls Community Justice Center, we intend to host courageous conversations, opportunities to come together in safe places to have honest discussions, hear one another’s voices, and come to common understandings. Look forward to invitations for you to join in these opportunities led by trained facilitators that will employ their restorative practices so that the community can see the benefits firsthand,” the letter concluded.

The policy was written after consulting with the school district’s attorney, according to School Director Priscilla Lambert of Rockingham, the chairwoman of the Policy Review Committee.

The Diversity and Equity Committee letter was read out loud by Haas, who is a member of the committee and signed the letter. BFUHS School Director David Clark of Westminster called it “a highly politicized letter.”

The letter echoes many of the same points raised three months ago by BFUHS guidance counselor Andrea Carlson, who is a member of the Diversity and Equity Committee, and signed the letter. Carlson had praised Waryas’ actions, in particular while she was surrounded by a group of “angry white men,” a reference to a group of Westminster men who had started attending the school board meetings once the Black Lives Matter issue came up.

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In that group were Board Chairwoman Molly Banik’s husband Paul and Westminster Director June Streeter’s husband, Cole Streeter, who is the Westminster fire chief.

Banik on Monday night said “they were good men, businessmen and fire chiefs, they were good men,” who should not have been criticized by Carlson, who at the time said she was speaking as a private citizen. The group no longer attends the board meetings.

“She has not been held accountable to us,” said Banik. “She chose the wrong words.”

Haas said it was “duly noted about a public apology.”

Carlson had said that as a school counselor she deals with issues relating to racism all the time, and that “racial incidents happen regularly.” Those incidents involve not just Black students, but Asian, Mexican and Jewish students, she said.

The board took no action on the letter, but it sparked a long discussion, with several members of the board questioning Haas and other members of the school administration what they had done in following up on Carlson’s original complaints, and whether they were accurate.

Rockingham board member Jason Terry wanted to talk about the issue behind closed doors, but that was rejected by fellow board members, Banik and Clark, as not appropriate for an executive session.

BFUHS Principal John Broadley was not at the meeting because of a family emergency out-of-state, but he prepared a report on bullying complaints at the school over the past five years.

In his absence, Haas presented Broadley’s report, which revealed only a small number of documented cases of harassment or bullying, on a variety of topics, not just racism. The vast majority of the harassment claims were sexual in nature, Broadley’s report showed.

In the past five years, there have been 34 documented incidents of harassment or bullying, the report stated.

Haas noted that while there were 34 confirmed cases, there were likely many more “under-reported” incidents.

Banik, who sparked criticism last fall when she walked out on a presentation by Curtiss Reed of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, told the board Monday night for the first time that she had met privately with Reed to discuss both his and her concerns.

“I owned it,” said Banik, “and I had a meeting with that gentleman.”

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.