Joelyn Mensah raising the Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School
Updated at 1:12 p.m.
Only the American and Vermont state flags could legally be flown on school grounds if a bill pending in the Vermont legislature becomes law.
Backed by eight House Republicans, H.92 seeks to keep school boards focused more on "educating kids" and less on debating "political agendas" such as that of the Black Lives Matter movement, said its sponsor, Rep. Brian Smith (R-Derby), who proposed a similar bill last year.
"Everybody, whether you’re Black or gay or Hispanic or white, we’re all Americans," Smith said in an interview. "We all live under one red, white and blue flag."
Smith said he came up with the idea because school boards "spend hours upon hours" debating whether to fly the BLM flag. Montpelier High School became the first in the nation to raise it after a student-led effort in 2018. Students at a number of other Vermont schools have since followed suit, including some spurred on by last summer's national reckoning on race and policing.
Smith said his bill would simplify matters by codifying the only two flags that could fly on school grounds. He stressed that his bill does not single out Black Lives Matter; prisoner of war pennants, for example, would also be prohibited, he said, though he did not know of any schools being petitioned to fly those.
He argued that raising any flag beyond the U.S. and Vermont ones opens the door to all types of requests and keep school boards mired in debate.
Smith couldn't say why he chose a flat-out ban instead of, say, a bill that would specify what types of flags would be allowed.
"It just came into my head that this was the way I wanted to do it," he said. He later honed his rationale: "These other groups have agendas," he said. "The American flag and the Vermont state flag are not an agenda flag."
Smith also suggested that his proposal would be a way to smooth tensions amid a charged political environment. "I’m a taxpayer — I pay for the public schools," he said. "Someone that is a fully supportive member of the BLM movement is a taxpayer as well. This takes that person and I from not having to argue over whether the flag should be flown or not."
"There’s enough conflicts going on right now," he added. "We don’t need to keep adding to it."
Smith's logic is the "epitome" of white privilege, said Jim Murphy, chairman of the Montpelier Roxbury School Board, which approved the high school's request to fly the flag.
"These are issues that have been under the surface and have been the cause and continue to be the cause of a lot of inequity and injustice and hurt in our society," Murphy said. "Avoiding these discussions benefits those who already have privilege, and keeps those that don’t in the same position they’ve been in."
Murphy said it was "ridiculous" to suggest that Montpelier's discussion over whether to raise its flag in any way detracted from students' learning experience.
"It was both not an onerous debate, and a productive debate that has advanced the educational and other values of the district," he said. "These are the debates that districts need to be having."
Smith's flag mandate will almost certainly not get off the ground. In fact, he's unlikely to even get a hearing on it; House Education Committee chair Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne) told Seven Days in a text message that she does not intend to take up the bill.
She said she will long remember watching the student-led efforts to raise the flag in Montpelier and other schools. "I cannot imagine being involved in a law that would have made that illegal," she wrote.