NORTH CLARENDON — A parent of two former Wallingford Elementary School students is demanding an apology after internal emails revealed he was the target of an insult by a member of the Mill River Unified Union School District Board.
At the Board’s regular meeting on Oct. 8, Brian McFarren read a statement in which he accused the board of dismissing his request to raise an Asian Lives Matter flag on school grounds. He said board member Liz Filskov of called him a “dick” and questioned his Asian heritage.
McFarren and his two children are Japanese-American.
Despite McFarren’s claims, a public records request shows the Board has been measured and inclusive in its discussion of additional flag requests.
The development is the latest in a contentious community debate about the board’s decision to raise Black Lives Matter and Pride flags on school grounds.
In June, Mill River High School student Reese Eldert-Moore made a request to the Board to raise the BLM flag. The Board decided to include the Pride flag during the ensuing discussion.
However, after public backlash and the threat of legal action, the Board decided to delay those plans last month until it had developed a district-wide policy for vetting requests for the display of flags.
At the meeting, McFarren called for Filskov’s resignation from the board and the recusal of board members Tammy Heffernan, Maria French and John McKenna on all flag-related issues “due to their complicity.” He also called for Heffernan to step down as board chair.
McFarren concluded by stating that he had consulted an attorney and was considering bringing suit against the board for “racial discrimination.”
McFarren said he had withdrawn his children from WES over the issue. On Monday, he clarified that his decision to transfer his children to Rutland Area Christian School at the beginning of this school year was a result of both the flag issue and the district’s remote-learning plan.
He said he had considered sending his kids back to WES, but not anymore.
“After how the board spoke to me, I could not in good sense bring my kids back to that school, dropping them off and knowing how the board members spoke about me behind my back,” he said.
In the same meeting, Superintendent David Younce disclosed that enrollment for the district was down 10%. He said the decline was the result of families’ disapproval of the district’s remote-only learning plan, as well as “ the controversy around flags.”
In an interview Monday, McFarren said, “I was just baffled at the way the School Board were talking about parents, people in the community.’”
He contended his request for an Asian Lives Matter flag was not given the same treatment as Eldert-Moore’s.
Despite his request, McFarren said Monday that he is not in favor of raising any new flags on school grounds.
“I believe the school should be flying the American flag and the state flag,” he said. “Why create any kind of divisiveness or have any other group stand out over others?”
However, in 48 pages of emails obtained by the Herald, McFarren pressed French on the issue. The emails also detail conversations between French, McKenna and Filskov regarding McFarren’s request.
When asked Monday why he made the request, McFarren said he wanted to show them “the can of worms they were opening” by displaying some flags and not others.
“You’re leaving people out. Certain people are not getting represented,” he said.
On June 24, McFarren emailed French, chair of the Board’s Community Engagement Committee, with his request.
“My kids go to Wallingford elementary school (sic). Will you also be flying a yellow lives matter flag or are they not significant (sic),” he wrote.
French subsequently conferred with McKenna via email before replying to McFarren later that evening with a response that, apparently, borrowed language from a prepared statement regarding the board’s decision to raise the BLM and Pride flags.
“Every one of our students is significant,” it reads, in part. “We did not take the decision to raise the … flags lightly, we did so based on review of local and national data on discrimination, an understanding of past and current students’ lived experiences, and best practice recommendations for educational excellence.”
French went on to invite McFarren to upcoming committee and the School Board meetings.
McFarren replied, writing, “So that’s a no on the yellow lives matter flag?”
French, again, encouraged him to bring his case to the Board for consideration, asking him to include “an example of the flag and its significance.”
McFarren confirmed Monday that no such flag exists.
He replied to French, writing, “I need to prove asian (sic) racism to you to make it worth your while to put up such a flag? I figure you would be proactive and do it out of respect for the asian population that has dealt with unimaginable and unrecognized prejudice. Yellow flag…..simple. BLM flag was not hard for you to accept considering present pressure. How many black (sic) kids attend Wallingford elementary compared to asian (sic)? Don’t they deserve the same respect? Or do asians (sic) not have a large enough political group to enforce this as BLM has?”
French replied: “We are not asking you to prove Asian racism, we are asking you to follow the same process. Flying the BLM flag is not intended as a divisive act, it represents our commitment to antiracism, equity and inclusion.”
In a separate email thread on the same date in which French and McKenna discuss the process the board underwent for considering the BLM and Pride flags, French pointed out the Pride flag was added without a direct request.
“True,” McKenna replied. “Not the best way to have done that. …”
In her correspondence with McFarren, French went on to emphasize that all students, staff and families deserve respect, and if he feels his children are being targeted, he should let their teacher know.
McFarren responded to French’s email by suggesting she do more research about “what BLM represents,” calling the group “radical” and writing that “political agendas should not be involved in the education system.”
He added that he respected “everyone’s opinions, and hoped “we can all work this out.”
“I appreciate your willingness to continue this conversation,” French wrote back, including text from BLM’s guiding principles.
In a separate email thread between French and McKenna, McKenna referenced two other MRU families who expressed disapproval over the flags. He characterized one as “right-wing conservative,” and expressed confusion over the other’s opposition because he said they allegedly have a person of color in their family.
French later wrote that she was “bracing” for an upcoming meeting.
“I welcome people coming to comment, because then we will know who they are and what their concerns are and maybe some clue about how to reassure them and work on helping them realize this is no threat to them or their families,” she stated.
French then followed up with McKenna to note that she had Googled McFarren. After sharing some minor biographical details about him, she stated that she had “no opinion about any of that.”
McFarren said he took offense to being Googled by a board member.
“I will focus on affirming our stance on harassment and bullying and agree that Asian Americans have dealt with racism and invite him again to make a proposal to the board,” she wrote.
In an email from Filskov to French that same evening, Filskov stated that “people are getting out of hand,” adding, “there’s no established yellow lives matter movement or yellow flag that represents a movement.”
Filskov then questioned McFarren’s claim the he is Japanese-American, writing, “I don’t think Brian McFarren is Asian but who knows it sounds like he’s just being a dick.”
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.”
On Monday, 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 the same email, Filskov suggested that requests to raise particular flags might be part of a coordinated effort.
“It’s starting to sound like this is a coordinated/organized campaign orchestrated by Art Peterson,” she wrote.
Peterson, who has been a vocal opponent of the flags, is running as a Republican in the Rutland-2 House race.
However, despite his opposition, he told the Herald on Sept. 10 that if the flags make it through the district’s forthcoming vetting process, he will honor the decision.
In that same interview, Peterson acknowledged that he was affiliated with the group that was threatening litigation against the district, but declined to divulge the names of others involved.
McFarren confirmed Monday that he received the copies of email transcripts about him from Shrewsbury resident Todd Fillmore, who acquired them from MRUUSD via a public records request.
McFarren also said Fillmore is a member of the group threatening legal action against the district.
Fillmore is the founder and moderator of a small Facebook group called SchoolHawk. A post written by Fillmore from Oct. 8 reads, “I started SchoolHawk 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.”
Both McFarren and Peterson are listed as members of SchoolHawk.
Speaking to the Herald Monday, Fillmore said he had acquired between 800 and 1,000 pages School Board emails that paint a picture of what he called a “rogue school board.”
“The board are public servants. They are not our masters,” he said. “They are supposed to work with the public, not to speak down to them.”
Fillmore said he believed that Black lives matter, but called the BLM organization and its leadership “volatile.”
“…(E)verybody I’ve encountered agrees that black lives matter, lowercase — of course, we all agree with that,” he said. “The problem is, when you start forcing a connection between a public flagpole, which is community property, and an organization, which has some very unsavory characteristics. When you make that connection, you’re obviously going to receive some negative feedback.”
In addition to McFarren’s case, Fillmore claimed that the emails he has reveal “dozens and dozens of willful violations of Vermont Open Meeting laws.”
In the pages, obtained by the Herald, no such violations were evident.
For McFarren, he said his own decision to pursue legal action depends on how Filskov and the board responds at its next monthly meeting.
“I’m not here to destroy anybody,” he said. “I just am disgusted by the conversations that’s happening behind a parent’s back. I would expect any parent to be upset if that’s how they’re being talked about when they’re raising a concern or an issue. It’s just not professional.”
Toward the end of the Oct. 7 meeting, Filskov said she “would like the opportunity at our next meeting to publicly apologize to Mr. McFerren and issue a public statement.”
In an email Monday, Board Chair Tammy Heffernan declined to comment on behalf of the board, adding that “the board will likely read a statement at the next board meeting following the anticipated apology from Ms. Filskov.”
McFarren said both he and his Japanese mother experienced racism growing up in Rutland, but said his father taught him to be a stronger person and stand up for himself.
Like Fillmore, he said he believes that Black lives matter, but takes issue with some of the tactics of the BLM organization, which he called bullying.
“Honestly, I don’t see how a flag, bottomline, for anybody is gonna make it better,” he said.