NORTH CLARENDON — A School Board member’s apology was not enough for some residents at last Wednesday’s Mill River Unified Union School District School Board meeting.
At the start of the meeting, held via Zoom and watched by about more than 40 people, board member Liz Filskov apologized for comments she made in private emails to a fellow board member regarding a former Wallingford Elementary School parent’s request to display an Asian Lives Matter flag in the district.
On June 24, Brian McFarren emailed board member Maria French to request that a “yellow lives matter” flag be displayed. McFarren, a Rutland resident and his two children who live in Wallingford, are Japanese-American.
McFarren has since withdrawn his children from the district due to both the flag issue and the district’s remote-learning plan. He confirmed in an email Monday that he would “no longer push for a flag for the Asian community.”
Several days prior to McFarren’s June request, the board had approved a Mill River High School student’s request to display a Black Lives Matter flag. In the subsequent discussion, the board agreed to display a Pride flag, as well.
After public backlash and threat of legal action, the board ultimately decided to suspend the display of any flags until a district-wide policy was developed. All flag requests, including the BLM and Pride flags, would need to be submitted for consideration under the new policy, which is still being drafted.
However, in a separate email conversation, Filskov emailed French to criticize McFarren’s request and cast doubt on his ethnicity.
“I don’t think Brian McFarren is Asian but who knows it sounds like he’s just being a dick,” Filskov wrote, adding that “people are getting out of hand.”
French pushed back on Filskov, writing, “It’s not out of hand, we’re having a conversation …,” adding, “… I believe his concern for his children is valid. I think the more we engage the better we all will be.”
Last Wednesday, Filskov addressed her comments, and expressed “regret” for assuming that McFarren was giving the board “a hard time” with his request.
“I could have made my point to my fellow board members less crassly. I apologize to Mr. McFarren, to his family, to the community and to the board for making an assumption that was wrong, the optics of which are poor, and for doing so crassly,” she said. “I misrepresented myself, my community and this board. I also wish to thank Mr. McFarren for holding me accountable. I will do better.”
Board Chairwoman Tammy Heffernan read a statement on behalf of the board, noting that “every member of our board is an individual that is responsible for his or her own decisions and actions.”
She clarified that her role as chair is not to supervise board members; rather, it is to facilitate meetings and speak on behalf of the board as instructed.
Heffernan then addressed McFarren, who was on the call, to inform him that the board had received his request on the date it was originally emailed, and “has considered it, at all times, a valid request.
Neither Filskov nor Heffernan responded to multiple requests for comment for this article.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Heather Juliussen-Stevenson — treasurer of the Rutland County chapter of the NAACP and chairwoman of the Rutland County Democrats — read a statement from NAACP President Tabitha Moore, which welcomed Filskov’s apology and supported the creation of a flag display policy.
Juliussen-Stevenson urged the board to stay the course in the face of opposition.
“Please don’t be distracted by antics or prideful indignation seeking to silence the pursuit of justice,” she stated.
However, the apology did not go far enough for some district residents. Six speakers called for Filskov to step down, citing not only her comments about McFarren, but also comments she has made about other district residents on social media.
In one post, Filskov states that “teaching equity, human rights and fairness should not be devisive (sic),” adding, “Behold our racist neighbors in plain sight.”
In another, she suggests that an individual’s objection to the BLM organization is a symptom of “white supremacy.”
“He cannot comprehend the world through any other lens. That is indoctrination,” she writes.
In addition to being a school board member, Filskov is an active member of the Wallingford Democratic Committee, a justice of the peace, and town chair liaison and alternate state delegate on the Rutland County Democratic Committee. She also works as regional organizer for Rights and Democracy VT, a progressive political action organization.
Tinmouth resident Arne Majorell, who was the subject of Filskov’s “white supremacy” post, addressed the comments, stating they were “appalling” and “could not be further from the truth.”
“It goes against the fabric of my morality and my very faith,” he said, adding that her accusation could potentially damage his career.
Majorell then asked Filskov to apologize to him and his family and requested she step down from the board.
District resident Jesse Williams spoke to express his concern over the disrespect and arrogance he believes the board and Superintendent David Younce have shown to their constituents. He also asked that both Filskov and Heffernan step down.
“Looks like it’s time for voters to weed out the rogue board members and elect board members who respect the people of our community,” he said.
Julie Petrossi, of Wallingford, also called for Filskov’s resignation, pointing out that over the summer Filskov was part of a campaign to get Wallingford Select Board member Patricia Pranger to resign for disparaging comments she had made on social media about two local children and their mother, who she allegedly called a “bimbo.”
“If she (Filskov) sets the standard for public service, then isn’t it fair and just for her to receive the very punishment and condemnation that she has reserved for others with lesser offenses on her own?” Petrossi asked.
Shrewsbury resident Todd Fillmore condemned Filskov’s comments and demanded for her resignation.
“From where I stand, Ms. Filskov’s behavior appears openly defamatory in its essence with no concern for those damaged by the ridiculous public accusations,” he said.
McFarren spoke to restate his displeasure with how Filskov and the board has interacted with him and other constituents over the flag issue.
“A simple apology will not fix this issue, and I hope the board does the right thing to correct this unacceptable and unprofessional behavior, and request Ms. Filskov to step down from the board,” he said.
McFarren continued, stating that the BLM flag request was “given the fast track while my request for a yellow lives matter flag was questioned.”
According to emails obtained by the Herald, French promptly replied to McFarren’s email, and invited him to attend an upcoming meeting to make his request.
“You want me to believe my request was taken seriously just because I was invited to a meeting?” McFarren asked in an email Monday.
Speaking to the Herald on Oct. 12, McFarren acknowledged that French was “professional” and had treated him fairly, but expressed frustration that neither she nor any other board members objected to how Filskov spoke of him.
In that same interview, McFarren said, “I believe school should be flying the American flag in the State flag,” and explained that he had made his request to show them “the can of worms that they were opening by flying flags for different groups.”
In an email Monday, McFarren said he did not accept Filskov’s apology, arguing that it was “insincere” was made only because she got caught for conduct that he alleges has been going on among some school board members for “quite some time.”
Gail Gillam, another district resident, also asked for Filskov’s resignation, claiming her comments were a violation of the Vermont School Boards Association’s code of ethics.
According VBSA’s code of ethics, board members are expected to “voice opinions respectfully and treat with respect other board members, administrators, school staff and members of the public.”
In the MRUUSD Board member conflict of interest policy adopted in 2016, it states that “Board members will be familiar with the VSBA Code of Ethics, and will observe its provisions.”
“As a body that’s charged with oversight of the school district, it is, I would say, the duty of all the members of the board to adhere to the highest ethical standards,” said Sue Ceglowski, executive director of the VSBA, who was speaking generally and not in reference to this specific situation.
“Our recommendation to school boards is that the clearer the board can be about the expectations for board member conduct and a process for addressing unethical conduct the better it will be equipped to address issues if they occur,” she said.
Clarendon resident Madison Akin, who spoke last at Wednesday’s meeting, questioned the sincerity of McFarren’s request, calling it “intentionally antagonizing.”
“If your flag request was really a plea for inclusion and representation, then you’ll be willing to join lots of committees,” she said.
The multiple calls for Filskov’s resignation appear to have been part of a coordinated effort.
Several of the speakers are members of a private Facebook Group called SchoolHawk, founded by Fillmore. A description of the group says it was started to “defend students’ rights to a public education free of political indoctrination, and to defend the most sacred right of all — the right to free speech.”
The group was public until Oct. 14. In a post, Fillmore stated he intended to take the group private “to allow more freedom for people to participate who are in sensitive positions, such as school faculty, etc. This will become more important in the next few days as we begin to really turn up the heat on the Mill River school board — particularly Liz Filskov for her horrible mistreatment of decent people.”
In related business, board member and Policy Committee Chairman Bjorn Behrendt shared a draft of the flag policy with the board and reported that it needed further work before it was ready for final approval.
Younce informed the board that a total of seven flag requests had been made, but under the current draft of the policy, none would be accepted. On Monday, Younce confirmed that all seven requests were under consideration and would be reviewed in accordance with the new policy once it has been adopted by the board.
Younce provided a list of the flag requests along with the date they were issued. They include:
— Black Lives Matter, by MRUHS student Reese Eldert-Moore (June 17)
— Pride, by MRUUSD Board member Andy Richards-Peelle (June 17)
— Yellow Lives Matter, by Brian McFarren (June 24)
— Your Life Matters, (“focused on suicide prevention”), by Anna Majorell (July 23)
— Nonspecific flag (“focused on mentally disabled children”), Anna Majorell (7/23/2020)
— Nonspecific flag (“focused on Native Americans), by Bill Jones (July 23)
— Don’t All Lives Matter? (“focused on Black, Asian, Native, White, unborn”), Todd Fillmore (July 24)
MONTPELIER — Rule waivers granted to Vermont and other states in March that allow children to receive free breakfast and lunch through schools have been extended until the end of June.
“It’s a nationwide waiver. Right now any school in the country can choose to operate in this special way. This is really an extension of what has been happening since March, since the schools closed,” said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.
In March, the pandemic forced schools to close, but meal programs designed to take effect during a disaster were offered through the summer, and many of the normal rules surrounding them were waived by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Horton said a big change was making all meals free, so the schools wouldn’t have to spend time tracking which kids were eligible for them.
“There’s lots of other rules that also got waived,” said Horton. “For meals to be delivered to kids at home, that’s not allowed under the normal program, for parents to come and pick up multiple days worth of meals at a time, that’s not allowed under the normal program. These things are happening now because of the pandemic.”
Getting these waivers extended by the USDA took some convincing, she said, adding that Vermont’s congressional delegation took the lead on the issue and eventually the USDA made the waiver extension nationwide.
Hunger Free Vermont, and other hunger organizations, plan to talk the USDA into extending the waivers at least through summer 2021. She said people should seek to use the free meals program, as it helps the schools and the farmers producing food for the meals.
“We want to get the message out to all families with kids out there to say, use your school meal program,” she said. “It’s free for everyone right now, and the best way to support your schools is to use that program.”
Even children who aren’t in school can get food through a school program, said Rosie Krueger, state director of child nutrition programs at the Agency of Education.
“The big thing about the extension of the waiver is not just that it allows us to serve free meals for all school children, it actually allows us to serve free meals for all children 18 and under including younger siblings who aren’t yet school age,” she said. “That’s a big difference, even under universal meals.”
For kids not yet enrolled, they have to get meals from a school that’s designated an “open site,” she said. Not all schools have chosen to be open sites, but many have. Krueger said parents should first contact their school to see what’s available, and if they can’t get meals that way they should call 2-1-1 or visit the USDA’s meal finder site, fns.usda.gov/meals4kids
Some of the rules that the USDA has waived allow parents to pick up multiple days worth of meals, for meals to be delivered to homes, and for schools to have some flexibility on what they can serve, as there may be some foods hard to source given the pandemic. The latter issue, she said, hasn’t been a major issue in Vermont.
Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said Monday the waivers have worked well for the district and it has helped many families. She said it’s good news that the waivers were extended and that the supervisory union was among those that voiced its support for them.
A man whose case was one of three that Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy said contained enough substantive errors that her office could no longer prosecute a Rutland City Police Department officer’s cases was sentenced to serve two years on Monday.
Malcolm J. Campbell, 36, was arraigned in Rutland criminal court in January 2019 on felony charges of first-degree aggravated domestic assault and sexual assault based on incidents that allegedly happened in January 2019 on State Street.
In November 2019, a Rutland County jury convicted Campbell on the domestic assault charge but the jury was hung on the sexual assault charge.
Campbell had reached an agreement with the state for the terms of his sentence, imposed on Monday, for five to 10 years in prison, all suspended except for two years. He will spend five years on probation.
Because of time already spent in prison, Campbell will be eligible for release this January.
Daron Raleigh, an assistant state’s attorney for Rutland County, said part of the sentencing agreement was the state dismissing the sexual assault charge. Raleigh was the prosecutor in the case.
Campbell was charged based on an affidavit written by Emilio Rosario, who was a detective with the Rutland police at the time.
Rosario said police spoke to a woman who said she once had a romantic relationship with Campbell.
She said she allowed Campbell to continue living with her because he said he had nowhere else to go, but on Jan. 15, 2019, they argued about money and she told him he had to leave.
During the argument, Campbell “came at the woman and grabbed her around her neck.”
The woman said she couldn’t move or breathe. She said Campbell was holding her down by putting one of his knees on her neck.
“(The woman) said that Campbell told her that she should be grateful for the air that she breathes,” the affidavit stated.
The woman said she feared for her life and that Campbell kept telling her she did not appreciate him.
The affidavit also stated Campbell removed the woman’s clothing and forced her into sexual conduct but she said she resisted and Campbell stopped. She said Campbell left her home but told her he “was not finished with her.”
Police found Campbell driving his truck on Allen Street, Rosario wrote in the affidavit.
Campbell denied any wrongdoing and said he never did anything to hurt the woman.
The letter sent to Chief Brian Kilcullen by Kennedy, listed three cases supporting Kennedy’s decision that her office would no longer prosecute cases brought by Rosario.
About the Campbell case, Kennedy said Rosario “erroneously stated that (he) had seized the truck,” Kennedy’s letter stated.
Kennedy said the judge who granted the warrant would not have known the truck has not been in police custody, which meant the evidence could have been contaminated or subject to a challenge over the chain of custody.
Kennedy said she instructed Rosario to write a new affidavit that corrected the potentially misleading information.
“If that had been the only time Detective Rosario authored a misleading affidavit, I felt confident we had addressed it with the second affidavit. However, now, again, in light of Batease and Wright, the misstatement in Campbell appears to be more problematic than originally believed and part of a larger pattern,” she said.
In the Wright case, the state dismissed an attempted murder charge because of inaccuracies in an affidavit about seized cell phones. In Batease, Rosario admitted he changed an affidavit because he had a second conversation with a witness and later changed the affidavit without making it clear the new information came from a second interview.
On Monday, Kilcullen said Rosario remains employed with the RCPD in a non-sworn capacity.
Asked whether the concerns about Rosario were raised during Campbell’s sentencing, Raleigh said part of the sentencing agreement was that Campbell agreed to waive all appeal rights.
“That was important because of the risks that were raised in (Kennedy’s) letter,” Raleigh said.
“None of this is surprising. We see it every election cycle. But a gun is not going to scare the pandemic away, or business to reopen. That is going to take a different level of self-protection and safety.”
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