SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — The Springfield School Board denied a petition submitted by the student-led group AWARE to raise the Black Lives Matter flag in a showing of support and solidarity following a two-hour discussion filled with personal accounts of racist and anti-Semitic incidents in Springfield schools.

It was a somber night for the 100-plus attendees of the Springfield School Board’s bi-weekly meeting on Monday as five members of the AWARE group, two advisors, and countless fellow scholars, educators, parents, town residents, and board members unmuted their Google Meet microphones and expressed concerns over unaddressed acts of discrimination and bullying throughout the school district.

The petition, which has been signed by a couple hundred individuals, calls for the Black Lives Matter flag to fly outside Springfield High School indefinitely as a symbolic gesture that their voices are being heard after years of inadequate resolution.

“We would like to invite our community to a conversation about education and issues in the Springfield community,” a letter submitted by AWARE to the Springfield School Board states. “One of those issues is racism, though many might not see it or experience it. Racism is something students of Springfield schools deal with on a daily basis. We also know that people deal with other serious and important issues and we are in no way discrediting that experience. We feel though, this is something that we can improve in our school and our community.”

Superintendent Zach McLaughlin opened the new business topic by detailing two meetings held with students in regards to this appeal followed by five members of the AWARE group — Zoe Avent, Makaila Dorcely, Natalia Dorcely, Tristin Grant, and Maya Owens — introducing the proposal in conjunction with speeches that at their heart conveyed a shared sense of fear and lack of security at school.

“There was one day where teachers had to physically escort some students of color, myself included, because they feared for our safety. Students of color feel so unsafe in school that some of them don’t even come to school in fear of their peers’ reactions and retaliation and I don’t blame them,” said Natalia Dorcely, who also referenced the 2017 incident involving an 8-year-old biracial boy from Claremont that resulted in neck injuries after he was pushed from behind off a picnic table with a rope looped around his neck. “There is violence in this community that is ignored and normalized and I’m sick of it.”

Natalia also said that the use of racial slurs and the communication of racist notions have become so normalized that students were compelled to start a book documenting their experiences.

For Ariana Dorcely, the novel coronavirus pandemic actually brought a sense of relief when she was presented the option to learn from home. While some students saw this as an extraordinary opportunity to attend class from the comfort of their room for the sake of it, in Ariana’s eyes, this choice bestowed something vastly more meaningful: a way to avoid racist incidents and comments that have significantly affected her educational experience.

“During my eighth grade year I was called the n-word almost every day by a number of different students. The solution for this issue was a one-day suspension for the students who dehumanized me by using that word to address me. After this happened, I was afraid to go to school and my grades started to drop,” Ariana Dorcely said. “When I was given the choice this school year between hybrid and remote learning, I chose to learn from home. I made this decision for a number of reasons, but primarily to avoid the racism that is prevalent in this school. I truly think that this raising of the flag would show the support of our community in eliminating racism and the support of educating each other on racism.”

In total, the students who spoke recounted a number of instances where they have been made to feel less than their peers by fellow scholars and school officials based solely on their identity. These include, but are certainly not limited to: being called a “slave” and “cotton picker” in school, among other racial slurs; being escorted off school property after it was deemed unsafe for students of color; being told Afro-picks are not a good public representation of the Green Horn by other students on the Green Horn; being told to “hold our tongue” when racist things are said in class; and Confederate flags being flown on student vehicles.

One incident brought up more often than any other was a situation in which a Wi-Fi hotspot created at the school was inappropriately and offensively named. According to Natalia Dorcely, the resolution to the situation offered by the school was to make an announcement saying the n-word isn’t allowed.

These experiences have led to reports of the deterioration of students’ mental health.

“In my four years of high school I’ve gone through immense trauma through various forms of racism in the community, whether it was being escorted from the school because of physical threats, being followed in the hallway by multiple teachers because they didn’t believe I was heading to class, being targeted and threatened on social media and various other unanimous chat services, or being denied opportunities I know I deserve and watch other people get them even though I work harder,” Makaila Dorcely said. “I’ve had to grow up way too fast both mentally and emotionally and I’ve had to learn how to survive in a world that doesn’t expect nor want me to and still I’m expected to remain silent, respectful, and try to blend into the norm because if I don’t I’m met with extreme backlash.”

While most of the public comments were in support of the students’ request to raise the Black Lives Matter flag outside of Springfield High School — with some extending it to all schools in the district — some residents brought up concerns that the flag would only enhance the divisiveness that already exists while others questioned the presence of racism in the town.

Jason Curtis, a 1994 Springfield High School alumni and current town resident, elaborated on a counter-petition started by Springfield residents and argued that the restriction of the Confederate flag on school property — a topic that was brought up earlier on in the meeting — would be a violation of First Amendment rights.

“The fact remains that when I hear all of these things (referring to student accounts), it cannot negate the petitions that I believe each board member has with 476 [signatures] on the electronic petition for residents and alumni of Springfield High School who are contributing members for a lot of your scholarships. And we also have a hard copy which last Friday had another 75,” Curtis said. “So I appreciate the time that you folks took, but I hope that you would understand that if we allow any other flag … it is the textbook definition of the term ‘discrimination.’”

It is important to note that some school districts in the U.S. have banned both the swastika and the Confederate flag on school property, reasoning that it negatively impacts students’ ability to learn.

Curtis also claimed that “the American flag encompasses all other flags” and suggested that the board draft a policy “stating that no flags other than those of the United States of America and the State of Vermont shall be displayed on campus at all Springfield schools.”

A letter to the editor sent last week to the Eagle Times and Rutland Herald intended for the Springfield School Board and administration and signed “Concern Tax Payers of Springfield” echoed similar sentiments. The Eagle Times was unable to confirm if this letter is connected in any way to the counter-petition.

“Do you really want to support Black Lives Matter endeavors? Is that your role as educators? Are you indoctrinating our children to this way of living and thinking?” the letter reads. “We highly encourage [you] to educate yourself by Googling the internet on Black Lives Matter and what they stand for and what they believe … The American flag stands for all of us, Black, Brown, White, Yellow, etc. By adding the BLM flag, you open a slippery slope.”

Throughout the rest of the meeting, Curtis could be heard speaking over others and questioning individuals' citizenship and students’ role in the call to raise the Black Lives Matter flag.

Many of those in attendance continued to speak in support of the student-driven proposal, reemphasizing that saying “Black lives matter” is not to say others don’t and questioning what the harm could be to raising the flag.

“It’s crazy to me that something like a little piece of cloth, like a flag, should be so divisive in our community because it seems like such a simple thing to raise [this message] on a flagpole and to tell these students that we love them and we affirm them and that we believe that their education is just as important as the education of any white child in this community,” said Springfield resident and member of Springfield for Community Change Heather Rigney. “But it is such a big thing to so many, and that shocks me. As a parent, as a community member, that we should think that it has to be an either-or situation where it’s a Black Lives Matter flag or an American flag because it shouldn’t have to be one or another. It should be both.It should be a matter of these children and the Black people in our community feeling part of our community, feeling part of our country. There’s nothing that says you have to be a patriot or that you have to be a proponent of Black Lives Matter. To me they are one in the same.”

Prior to the vote, Springfield School Board Chair Troy Palmer voiced frustration over the board just hearing about these incidents at these past few meetings, as well as receiving an email the morning of the Monday meeting detailing that “almost 30% of all student issues last year were racism-based.”

“I mean, it sounds like from all this information [that] we have a big problem within this district and within this community, and it’s something that this board hasn’t been made aware of,” Palmer concluded.

The board then proceeded to vote on the motion, which failed by a vote of 3-2. Jeanice Garfield and Troy Palmer voted to pass the proposal while Michael Griffin, Steve Karaffa and Patti Kemp voted against. Patti and Steve did not speak on the proposal or the motion prior to voting.

McLaughlin and members of the school board noted that additional training as well as the adoption of an anti-racism policy, which Hartford, Vermont, added recently, would be effective and necessary steps forward.

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