NORTH CLARENDON — The Black Lives Matter flag will fly at Mill River Union High School this fall.
The Mill River Union Unified School District Board voted 8-3 Wednesday evening to approve a student proposal to display the flag.
The proposal was brought to the board by Reese Eldert-Moore, a member of the Class of 2021, who initially requested the board consider displaying the BLM flag at the school last summer.
At the time, the request was approved along with a proposal by a board member to display the LGBTQ Pride flag.
The board, however, decided to defer the display of any flags following pushback from community members and threats of litigation.
In the fall, it adopted a district-wide policy for vetting all flag display requests.
Earlier this year, Eldert-Moore resubmitted her proposal under the new policy.
The BLM flag she requested includes a rainbow on the right edge of it that represents Black LGBTQ Pride.
As Eldert-Moore explained, “The people of the Black LGBTQ community, especially Black trans women, are being killed at a higher rate than anyone else right now in the Black community.”
Per the policy, only MRUHS students or student groups may make flag requests. In addition to Eldert-Moore, who graduated last week, two other current MRUHS students have co-sponsored the proposal.
Flags may only be displayed for a maximum of three months.
The policy requires requests meet a number of technical specifications, and have demonstrated support from students and a faculty adviser.
In addition, the flag may not:
— be libelous, defamatory, obscene, lewd, vulgar or profane;
— violate federal, state or local laws;
— violate any district policy;
— interfere with or advocate interference with the rights of any individual or the orderly operation of the schools and their programs;
— be subject to copyright, licensing or trademarks;
— be commercial in nature.
Requests are reviewed by Superintendent David Younce. If they meet the criteria, they are presented to the board for consideration. Upon hearing a request, the board must vote on the matter within the following two regularly scheduled meetings.
Speaking to the board Wednesday, Eldert-Moore detailed the harassment she and her family faced as a result of her efforts to raise the flag, which ultimately forced them to move out of Wallingford.
“After you said ‘yes,’ a group of angry and scared white people with a specific anti-equity agenda came forward and challenged your decision and used me for their own campaign of hate,” she said.
“If that alone isn’t enough evidence of why we need to take a stand against racism, I don’t know what is enough to convince you.”
She dismissed what she called “false and exaggerated claims” that the BLM movement is a Marxist or terrorist organization, stating, “This fake news will not end until schools do better to educate and explain what the movement for Black lives actually is.”
“It’s a cry for help and a request for solidarity in ending the structural and systematic racism that prevents us from seeing ourselves in our school and in our community. Raising this flag is a sign of hope that maybe we actually do matter in this school,” she said.
Board Chair Adrienne Raymond then opened the matter up for board discussion.
Board member Doug Earle said, as an adoptive father of several children of color who went to MRUUSD schools and endured hardships because of their race, he agreed more could be done to help students of color; however, he didn’t believe a BLM flag was “going to make a difference.”
He then noted instances of violence and property damage he claimed were linked to the BLM movement.
While member Maria French agreed with Earle that a flag alone wasn’t going to solve any problems, she argued that displaying it would still be meaningful.
“It’ll help give a visual support to people in our district,” she said. “I think it’s still important for us to do as a reminder for those of us that aren’t affected so directly by racism.”
Board Member Matthew Gouchberg said, that being Jewish, he experienced antisemitism when he was growing up and sympathized with Eldert-Moore. Nonetheless, he took exception to her choice of words in addressing the board.
“I really enjoyed your speech until you got to the part where you referred to us as ‘angry white people,’” he said.
Eldert-Moore responded, stating, “I’m sorry that happened to you growing up, but please do not equate your religious oppression to my racial oppression. This is something that I go through every single day. And I’m still dealing with it.”
Bjorn Behrendt said that while the past year spent discussing this issue has led him to support raising the flag, the biggest determining factor was his teenage daughter asking him to do so.
Liz Filskov said she was “unequivocally” in favor of the proposal.
“We have a biracial student asking an all-white board to stand in solidarity with a movement to value lives like hers,” she said.
Len Doucette said he acknowledged that he could never truly understand Eldert-Moore’s experience, but stated he felt that the community had not had enough time to weigh in on it.
He then moved to table the vote until next meeting. Andrew Hawkins seconded the motion.
French pushed back, noting that the board has heard “plenty of public comment” during the past year, and added, “overwhelmingly, that public comment was in support of us flying the flag.”
Doucette’s motion failed 7-4.
Board Member Bruce Moreton suggested that approving the flag might be a violation of MRUUSD Policy E4, which is related to risk management.
The policy reads: “It is the policy of the district to minimize risk to the district as it discharges its responsibility for properly managing the resources of the school system. This responsibility includes concern for the safety of students, employees and the public, as well as concern for protecting the system’s property from loss. No new program, policy or procedure will be adopted or approved by the board without first giving careful consideration to the school system’s risk exposure.”
Younce clarified that the policy was related to fiscal risk only.
District Business Manager Stan Pawlaczyk agreed with Younce.
Moreton argued against that assessment, noting the policy included the word “safety.”
“This policy is about fiscal risk. It’s in the fiscal policy section,” said Younce. “It’s required to be in place in order to comply with insurance requirements, etc.”
Behrendt eventually moved to approve Eldert-Moore’s proposal, amending it so the flag would be raised at the start of the upcoming school year. Filskov seconded the motion.
The motion passed 8-3, with Behrendt, Gouchberg, French, Filskov, Raymond, Doug Earle, Samantha Green and Asha Carroll all voting “yes,” and Moreton, Doucette and Hawkins voting “no.”
Gouchberg explained his “yes” vote, stating, “I see this as a learning experience where differences can come together. … No matter how big or small, your problem may seem, it should never be minimized.”
Speaking Friday, Eldert-Moore said raising the flag gives her hope for the future of the Mill River community and the next generation of students.
“I’m glad Mill River is taking a step in the right direction. Even though it took so long, I’m glad we’re taking a step at all,” she said.