Students at Tuesday’s School Board meeting proposed raising a Black Lives Matter flag at Rutland High School, but one of the comments made in response shocked some members of the public.
After a presentation by Rutland High School’s New Neighbors group that proposed raising the flag, Michael Blow, a member of the Rutland City Public Schools Board of Commissioners, inferred he could relate to racism that students of color faced because of comments he experienced while serving in Vietnam.
“I think all lives matter,” Blow began. “I think it’s become a group that’s become really political now. ... I am against racism.”
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, president of the Rutland area chapter of the NAACP, said Thursday that Blow’s comment is a frequent response to Black Lives Matter, and is indicative of a lack of understanding of the real problem.
“Nobody is saying nobody else matters,” Pohl-Moore said. “(People of color) in this country are discriminated against and killed just for existing. So many of us are just minding our own business. ... If you’re using the ‘all lives matter’ response, you’ve got to do some soul searching to find out why you’re so offended that someone is in pain.”
Blow said what mattered more than flying a flag at the school was how people treated one another.
“I do get your feeling,” Blow said to the students at Tuesday’s meeting. “My mother is from Ireland. My two brothers were born in New York City ... anybody knows any history about the Irish ... (they were) treated terrible. No Irish allowed, no nothing.”
Blow told students Alex White, Noah White, Greta Solsaa and Jamison Evans — three of whom are black — about how he was brought up in Burlington and regularly ate and slept over at the home of a family of color, and kept friendships with people of color as he grew up and eventually went into the military, where he was criticized for keeping those friendships.
“When I joined the service ... in Vietnam, that’s where I got the racism. I became a n*****-lover because I made friends with everyone,” Blow said.
In an interview on Thursday, Blow said he doesn’t condone the use of the slur.
“That’s what they called me,” Blow said. “I’m just speaking the truth. I was giving an example of what they used in war time. ... It’s not a word I use. It’s a word I was called.”
Upon hearing a recording of the meeting, Pohl-Moore said she questioned whether Blow understood what it truly meant to be an ally.
“That was totally inappropriate,” Pohl-Moore said. “If you did (understand), you would not use that word. For a board member to do that is appalling.”
In the students’ presentation, they said their first instinct is to laugh the racial slur off, as they said it was sometimes spoken in an attempt at uncouth comedy by their peers, but only served to further marginalize them.
“We are the minority, but that doesn’t mean we should be targets for easy jokes like that,” said Alex White at Tuesday’s meeting.
The students cited studies showing people of color are stopped by police four times more often than white people, despite black people being roughly 1 percent of the population in Vermont. The presentation included statistics and graphs showing other ways people of color are unfairly targeted and treated violently.
The presentation cited “13th” and “Divided by Diversity,” two movies aimed at exposing underlying racism in Vermont and nationally. The students retold the stories of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, two people of color who were killed after not committing any crime, before explaining “Say Her Name,” a movement that calls attention to police violence against women of color.
High schools in Montpelier, Burlington, South Burlington and Essex have already raised BLM flags, the students said at Tuesday’s meeting, and it was time Rutland did the same. U-32 Middle and High School has also raised the flag.
“To take a stand against racism in our community,” Noah White said. “By showing everyone in our community that black lives truly do matter.”
“It’s a lot more than just a flag,” Alex White said. “It’s an opportunity to express Rutland High School’s acceptance of all races.”
Board member Dena Goldberg praised the students for standing up and speaking out.
“This is a situation you cannot undo,” she said at the meeting. “You cannot undo your skin color.
“I think it would be of great value to our community to support those experiences that are not supported.”
Board member Hurley Cavacas proposed bringing the students back to another meeting once they could offer logistics, such as the flag’s size. Board member Kam Johnston said they should wait and bring the issue up at the next policy meeting.
“There is a flag code,” said Superintendent Adam Taylor. “(But) there really are no teeth in the law.”
“I am for it if, logistically, we can figure everything out,” Cavacas said.
The faculty sponsor, Jennie Gartner, said the students had done their research, and could provide the information to the board immediately.
“They have been working on this since last March,” Gartner said.
Janie Evans, risk management, payroll and human resources director at Green Mountain College, said the flag flies at the college without any issues from the state.
“All on one pole, all on one rope,” Evans said of the three flags that fly: the national flag, the state flag and one for BLM. “There is no expense for this.”
Johnston said allowing the flag to fly might label the district as having inconsistent behavior if the board didn’t first send the idea to the Building and Policy Committee. He asked how long the flag would be flown.
“My concern is if we send this to all of these committees, it’ll never happen for another five years,” Cavacas said. “It’s going to take three months to come out of policy.”
Johnston was opposed to bringing the issue back up at the following meeting on the grounds that there was a clerk’s race coming up and board reorganization scheduled.
In the end, commissioners voted 4-1 to invite the students back to the next meeting. Blow voted against, and Johnston and Charlene Steward abstained.
“What the kids were discussing after, was Mr. Blow’s comment, using the n-word,” Eric Solsaa, parent of student Greta Solsaa, said in a Thursday interview. “It was sort of negating what they were sharing with the board.”
Solsaa said Blow should make an attempt to learn some cultural sensitivity.
“This is not just a one-off incident,” Solsaa said. “It’s not just a few people who experienced their needs. It really seemed like the board was shirking their responsibility to make a decision. If they don’t make a decision, yea or nay, the kids can’t counter it.”
Solsaa said his daughter has been involved with trying to get the Black Lives Matter flag raised for almost two years.
“There’s this domino effect that is feared: If we were to recognize that we’re not supportive in one area, we would have to do this in other areas,” Solsaa said. “For some reason, that scares people. (It’s a) lack of education, lack of empathy. In an all-white state, we don’t spend a lot of time concerning ourselves with what non-white people are experiencing.”
Pohl-Moore said it’s crucial for white people to accept the experiences of people of color, even though they may not be able to relate.
“(Blow) has the opportunity to show other older white folks how to do it better,” Pohl-Moore said. “His mistake was completely avoidable. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know that it’s not OK to say it out loud.”
She said an apology on Blow’s part to the students and people of color in the community might be a good first step, but the School Board also had a responsibility to react to his actions.
Pohl-Moore said she also questioned why the School Board didn’t immediately vote to support the students and do research of their own regarding raising the BLM flag.
“This promotes First Amendment rights,” Pohl-Moore said. “I question the motives. It sounds like creating red tape for the purpose of creating red tape.”
Renee Beaupre-White, mother of Alex and Noah, said the two young men declined to comment, and faculty sponsor Jennie Gartner declined to comment as well Thursday.
MONTPELIER — Vermonters will be able to identify a third gender on their driver’s license starting July 1.
The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles announced Wednesday that those applying for or renewing a license will be able to choose from male, female or other as their gender. Those that choose other will see “X” as their identifier.
DMV Commissioner Wanda Minoli said the change comes as part of an ongoing process to modify the state’s driver’s license system.
“It’s appropriate for Vermont at this time to make the changes,” Minoli said.
She said other states and Washington, D.C., have made similar moves: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Utah and Washington have non-binary gender markers on their licenses.
“We see it as increased safety and inclusion of all Vermonters,” Minoli said.
She said it can be uncomfortable for those that don’t identify as male or female to have to pick one or the other for their license.
Gustavo Mercado Muñiz is the transgender program manager at the Pride Center of Vermont, a community center for the state’s LGBTQ community. Muñiz identifies as they or them, not he or she.
Muñiz said as a non-binary person who works with non-binary people every day, “it’s a wonderful change” that makes them feel less marginalized.
“(Picking M or F) is one of those things that you do for so long that it becomes sort of second nature,” Muñiz said. “For my whole life I’ve only had one of the two options.”
Muñiz said having to indicate their sex, not gender, on something like a driver’s license or job application erases part of themselves in order to be recognized by a system. It forces non-binary people to explain their gender identity in spaces they may not feel safe, they said.
“A lot of community members who identify outside of the binary are sort of feeling seen in a way that they haven’t been up to today, at least in Vermont,” Muñiz said.
While they celebrate the change in driver’s licenses and the community is excited about it, Muñiz said there’s still work to be done. They said while the state has laws in place against discrimination, those laws need to be enforced.
“And sort of find a better way to make sure that when folks are being discriminated against in a workplace because of their gender identity that it’s respected in the same way as discrimination for any other criteria,” Muñiz said.
Muñiz said health care is another area that needs improvement. They’ve heard of cases where health care providers mis-gender people even after being told the person’s actual gender.
The possible loss of small Vermont hospitals could be a problem for the state, said Claudio Fort, president and CEO of Rutland Regional Medical Center.
Fort was invited to the Herald offices Thursday to reflect on his first year at the Rutland hospital.
Asked about whether the problems at small hospitals like Springfield Hospital would be an opportunity to expand or a stressor forcing a hospital to expand its services, Fort said it was more likely to cause tension in systems that are already stretched thin.
Fort said while administrators at RRMC were sensitive to the situation in Springfield, Gov. Phil Scott has already considered that possibility.
“That’s why he appointed my predecessor, Tom Huebner, to kind of represent the governor’s office in the Springfield situation, and has asked the local hospitals to convene to say, ‘OK, what can we do to support the situation and what is the contingency if Springfield did close or close a service? Can the other hospitals pick up the slack,’” he said.
Efforts are being made to save Springfield’s medical center. Fort said it would be stressful if the hospital were to fail.
Primarily, he said, it could be difficult for residents of the Springfield area who might now be 40 minutes from the closest emergency department.
“I think it’s a real challenge in Vermont because of the geographic challenge we have and the winter weather. We’re not driving on perfectly flat highways to get to the next hospital, we’re going over mountains and mountainous terrain. It is a big challenge for people who are sick and elderly, which is a large part of our population, to get there to get access,” he said.
The future survival of small hospitals in Vermont is something that administrators are already considering, Fort said, and it’s also a concern of the Green Mountain Care Board.
RRMC is already seeing more utilization of its emergency department than its staff and facilities can easily support, but Fort said the challenges could extend beyond the loss of medical services.
“There’s also the other things that a hospital brings to a community. The social and certainly economic impact hospitals have on your community,” he said.
Fort compared the potential impact to that felt by Vermont towns that could lose their local school to consolidation.
“No community wants to lose, especially no small rural community, wants to lose their school, which is kind of a hub of activity for them. Likewise, they don’t want to lose their hospital,” he said.
However, Fort said it wasn’t clear whether small, rural hospitals can survive no matter how much they’re valued by their community.
“It’s a great question. Can the independent hospital still survive? We’re seeing less and less of them throughout the country,” he said.
Leaders of hospitals considering consolidation should try to be as clear as they can about what they hope to gain, Fort suggested. But there are challenges to trying to remain small and independent, he added.
Fort said there was a hidden cost for communities that lose their hospital. Hospitals are providing health services for which they receive no direct compensation based on the theory that healthier communities are less expensive to treat.
“I look at all the things that Rutland Regional does, kind of outside its scope, that really have a downstream effect on the health of its community. I don’t think you see that on a balance sheet what that impact is, but I think you would see actual health costs go up because if a hospital’s not there, not providing that hub, people aren’t going to get access to care, and that delayed access is going to be a liability,” he said.
Almost a year after he succeeded Thomas Huebner, Claudio Fort, president and CEO of Rutland Regional Medical Center, says he’s a believer in not just his hospital but his community.
“A year into this, I still feel very privileged to be here. I’ve had a chance over the past year to really get to know the organization in a lot more depth, and I will tell you, it’s a very impressive organization. … I’ve also had a chance to get to know the Rutland community, and I’ve been equally impressed. I think Rutland is a community that’s on the move and on the way up,” he said.
Fort, speaking to the Rutland Herald editorial board at the Herald’s Grove Street offices, complimented Huebner for leaving the Rutland hospital in a strong position financially and with its facilities, which include a rehabilitated and updated emergency department.
The announcement that Fort would be the new leader of RRMC was made at the beginning of March 2018 and he started about two months later.
Among the challenges at the hospital is finding enough appropriate staff, especially doctors with specific specialties such as urologists and nurses.
But Fort said he also appreciated the facilities and the level of engagement among staff and medical professionals.
Hospital officials are in the early stages of pursuing a new, onsite facility with eight beds in a secure building for treatment of people with mental health needs. The proposal is coming from RRMC and Rutland Mental Health.
“We’re also doing a facility master planning study. The hospital has made some great investments in facilities and now we’re taking a step back and saying, ‘OK, what are some of the other infrastructure facility needs?’ There are some older areas in the hospital. If you look at our medical oncology unit, that’s an older unit. What could we do to improve the environment up there — the environment of care for patients,” he said.
Fort addressed some of the challenges at the hospital as well, including the announcement made earlier this month of a data breach that may have exposed the data belonging to about 72,000 patients. Fort said the data wasn’t taken from the electronic medical records, so it wasn’t health records, and there was no evidence the information had been misused.
However, he said letters would be going out shortly to all the patients who may have been affected. He said he expected a strong response.
“I think we’re going to hear some more concerns next week when people get the letters, and we’ve tried to set up a system to respond to those concerns,” he said.
RRMC is also trying to address the opioid crisis beyond the programs at West Ridge Treatment Center.
Fort said doctors have been reconsidering how often they prescribe opioids and a system is in place to screen patients for opioid abuse when they visit the emergency department.
“They have a screening protocol they use and quick intervention so if they find that people are positive that they might be having an opiate problem, they take steps to try to address that with them and try to get them into a treatment program,” he said.
Fort expects the trend of Vermont hospitals seeking partnerships will continue. But while he said the Rutland hospital partners with a health care professional from UVM Medical Center to provide radiation oncology treatment, he said RRMC administrators were not currently planning an affiliation with another hospital the way Southwestern Vermont Medical Center has affiliated with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
“In Vermont, most of our hospitals are independent, as is Rutland. We have no plans to affiliate with anyone, but it is something I think our organization over the next couple of years will be looking at. I think it’s something we constantly need to look at as health care evolves,” he said.
Another bright spot for the hospital is the news that RRMC is one of six Vermont hospitals that had more revenue compared to their budget, according to the Green Mountain Care Board.
“It’s something that’s taking more and more of our management focus every day. Matter of fact, we just got out of a senior leadership council meeting today. I’d say at least a third of that meeting … was focused on, ‘What are we doing to try to contain costs and the various initiatives we have in place?’ Although Rutland was one of five hospitals in Vermont that ended up with a positive operating income from operations, eight of the hospitals in Vermont lost money last year. Although we were in the black, we were barely in the black,” he said.
In recent years, that margin of revenue exceeding expenses has decreased, Fort added.
“I’m sure he will not be happy with my vote. But I’m a United States senator and feel my job is to stand up for the Constitution.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is up for re-election next year in a state that values political independence, upon voting to reject President Trump’s emergency declaration. — B4
Greta Thunberg, 16, of Sweden, leader of Youth Strike for Climate, who is an inspiration for students across the globe, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. B3
The U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously for a resolution to make special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe public. A6
Fiddle, folk and other flavors of music at the Wild Fern, Route 100, Stockbridge, 7 p.m.