The Rutland City Public Schools Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to reaffirm a plan to fly the Black Lives Matter flag after School Board member Kam Johnston moved to rescind the board’s previous decision to raise the flag on April 12.
“To allow greater student input and to address related concerns,” Johnston said.
Johnston was the only “yes” vote, with every other board member voting “no.” The decision sparked enthusiastic applause, whoops and cheering from the audience.
“This decision was not rushed,” said board member Alison Notte just before the vote. “This was on the agenda for the board for two consecutive meetings ... student voice is what brought it here. ... It was not a political decision, it’s simply standing up for a marginalized population that wants their voices heard.”
Notte’s speech was heralded by applause from the crowd, many of whom raised Black Lives Matter signs and wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words Black Lives Matter.
“Our policy does allow it, our policy does have an anti-hate symbol policy, so we’re not going to be flying flags that have hate symbols,” Notte went on. “For the next 400 days, following April 12, it will be the Black Lives Matter flag.”
Board member Joanne Pencak reiterated that the students had previously followed policy in getting the flag raised, bringing the issue to the board over the course of multiple meetings. However, board member Charlene Seward said the board’s job was to make decisions regarding curriculum and academics.
“It seems this has become a divisive topic, more than bringing us together,” Seward said. “We advise the superintendent, and he does his job, and he advises his staff. Going forward, maybe we should defer to policy.”
Board member Dena Goldberg heralded the action as disrupting the status quo, and creating needed change.
“Keeping status quo is allowing things to continue as is without us doing anything as a community and a school district, and that is not what we are about,” Goldberg said.
Earlier in the evening, RHS junior Trevor McKay said the politics of the movement were what didn’t belong in the schools.
“It’s not the job of education to take a political stance,” McKay said. “Flying the flag of any political group, regardless of its purpose, is unfair to the taxpayers who pay for that (flag pole).”
McKay said flying the flag actually suppresses the voice of people who might disagree with any aspect of a certain group’s agenda, and called for a motion to rescind.
“A vote “yes” to giving more time ... so that this public discourse can happen,” McKay said.
Liz McKay, a parent, asked whether the board assumed a stance of love for all people, and whether any school should fly any flag aside from the national and state flag.
“If we choose to fly another flag, does it represent the beliefs of our schools?” McKay asked. “Will flying other flags cause discord, or unity in our community?”
Student representative and RHS junior Haley Lassen said she wasn’t surprised that several people called for a rescinding the motion to raise the BLM flag.
“I knew there was going to be controversy with this,” Lassen said. “It’s been associated with politics a lot, but I think it has a bigger message to it about acceptance and equality for people who haven’t had that throughout history and still today.”
Lassen said she was grateful, though, for the public forum, and personally thought the flag should fly.
“Black lives do matter,” she asserted. “They’ve been disregarded in the past and not been taken to heart. ... We should say, ‘We want to take a stance with the students who have experienced this in our community. It’s relevant in our community. It’s not just in other places. It’s here.”
The students’ faculty sponsor, Jennie Gartner, quoted the Black Lives Matter website, stating that people of color are continuously targeted, marginalized and stripped of opportunity and rights because they are not white.
“Of course, the lives of police matter,” Gartner stated from the website. “That’s why when you kill a police officer, you are rightly arrested and and prosecuted. Becoming a police officer is a choice, it is not the same as being born into a race.”
McKay and fellow student Maya Sobel later said that though they may not see racism walking the streets of Rutland, they would stand by any student who was being targeted.
“It’s really important to say what you think, even when it’s the unpopular opinion,” McKay said.