Photo credit: Rebecca Eun Mi Haslam
A Black Lives Matter flag flies at Montpelier High School in Vermont for the month of February. The flag raising on February 1 was organized by the Racial Justice Alliance, a student organization at Montpelier, as part of the national Black Lives Matter at School Week.
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“The first step in rooting out systemic racism is to acknowledge that it exists. I am humbled by and proud of the work done by Montpelier High School’s student-led Racial Justice Alliance for beginning this conversation among students, teachers, staff, parents and the community…I want to congratulate the hard work by the students of the Racial Justice Alliance, who put it exactly right when they said, ‘We will raise the flag with love in our hearts and voices,’” said Martha Allen, President of Vermont-NEA.
While the response that Montpelier High School received from the community was overwhelmingly positive, there were some extremists and hate groups outside of Vermont who threatened to organize a protest at the flag raising and who trolled the principal and others involved in the flag raising on social media.
Check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching from the Bulls-eye, tools to protect your school and students from hateful harassment.
“The response was 10 to 1 positive. When you root out the extremists, you can really have a conversation with people who simply don’t understand the impact of institutional racism…We have those who objected to Black Lives and not All Lives Matter and a colleague of mine offered this analogy: When people in the environmental movement said Save the Whales, no one said screw the dolphins. You have to respond to where the crisis lies,” said Mike McRaith the Principal of Montpelier High School.
Montpelier has a student population of 350, 18 of whom are students of color. Montpelier is one of the highest ranked schools in Vermont, yet still struggles with a persistent and problematic achievement gap. A small group of students presented to the faculty members last year to share some of their experiences as students of color in a white environment.
“The students shared their experiences with us to help us gain perspective. The one example that sticks with me is when a history teacher was showing a lynching image and a white student leans over to their black “friend” and says, “well, that’s a nice necklace.” That’s supposed to be a joke! It just shows no awareness of the impact and no matter what the intent is, it is not ok. The students shared 20 examples like this. This impacted our faculty in a major way. We want to be better and we can do better,” said McRaith.
Following the meeting faculty members dug deep from a professional development standpoint to build a better sense of cultural competency in the building and into the curriculum. Through workshops and trainings, educators built a better understanding of how to hold a cultural competency lens up to their work.
“The flag raising was the tip of the iceberg, what people don’t see is all that goes on underneath– the continuing conversations, the trainings and the move to a more inclusive curriculum. It’s the changes you make that are meaningful. Now, we are reading The Hate U Give and Between the World and Me…It gives a different perspective and we are holding a cultural competency lens up to everything we do,” said McRaith.