South Burlington residents rallying in 2017 during a time of upheaval around the high school's "Rebel" moniker
South Burlington High School students and faculty will raise a Black Lives Matter flag on Friday, and some residents have sharply criticized the plan.
The school board voted unanimously to support the flag-raising back in June. It will fly at the school during February in honor of Black History Month. School officials expect to hoist it in future years to mark the month.
Partly in response to concerns about potential disruptions and safety, school district leaders have limited public access. Only students and employees will be able to attend the 3 p.m. event. Other observers, including members of the news media, will only be allowed to watch from across the street from the school, on the west side of Dorset Street, in the parking lot by South Burlington's municipal building.
"Keeping the Black Lives Matter flag-raising assembly and outside ceremony limited to students and staff enhances student safety," superintendent David Young said in a public statement. "Additionally, the student leaders' and their advisers' goal for both the assembly and ceremony is to raise awareness, deepen learning and inspire further dialogue within their school community."
The upcoming event has triggered criticism on the Rebel Alliance Facebook page.
It's the group that launched an unsuccessful bid to stop the school district from dropping its mascot name, the Rebels, after critics said it had racist overtones connected to the Confederacy. The 2017 school board vote to change the name withstood legal challenges all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court. The district adopted a new moniker, the Wolves, in June 2017.
One of the Rebel Alliance leaders, South Burlington resident Sheldon Katz, has asked the board not to fly the flag or hold the high school and middle school assemblies that are planned in connection with the event. He also suggested on Facebook that students should "conscientiously object" by staying away from school on Friday.
He has voiced his concerns at school board meetings, on the Rebel Alliance Facebook page and via email to Seven Days.
"All good citizens should oppose the board’s decision to fly the Black Lives Matter flag and to hold BLM assemblies at SBSD schools," he wrote. "BLM’s toxic mix of victimhood, white guilt, and entitlement is contrary to the teachings of black luminaries like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Shelby Steele."
He contends the flag is tied to a larger political movement and that by flying it, the school district is taking sides on contentious issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nationally, the Black Lives Matter movement formed in 2013 and 2014 to protest police shootings of unarmed black men and teens. It has generated claims of anti-police bias as well as support from people who say the movement is bravely challenging a long history of racism in the United States.
It has also gradually become a broader movement with platforms outlined on gay rights, international politics and border issues at sites such as the Black Lives Matter Global Network. The pro-Palestinian views of some BLM national leaders have prompted calls of anti-Semitism from critics.
"BLM supports destroying Israel, the Middle East’s only liberal democracy and the world’s only safe-haven for Jews, including Black Jews," Katz wrote. The school district should not use taxpayer funds to support what he views as an anti-Semitic organization, he continued.
School board chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald declined to comment, but she released a statement to Seven Days that the board crafted in response to criticism.
"We understand that all our decisions are not popular with all our constituents, but we do our best to support the efforts of our students even when those may be potentially controversial," her statement read.
"Our students asked to raise the flag as a symbol of inclusion and support for all students. To quote from the students’ formal request to the Board last spring: 'We endeavor to create an accepting, equitable, and empathetic environment at SBHS. In raising the flag, we do not attempt to undermine the value of each and every student, but we do act to affirm the value of South Burlington’s Black students.'”
Other Vermont schools have also flown Black Lives Matter flags.
Montpelier High School got the trend moving with a flag-raising in February 2018. The school received threats, but the principal defended the decision, saying the sentiment was not anti-police but anti-bias.
Burlington High School followed suit with a flag-raising, also last February. U32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier has also raised the banner, as has Essex High School.