Legal Worries Prompt a Randolph School to Take Down a Black Lives Matter Flag | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Legal Worries Prompt a Randolph School to Take Down a Black Lives Matter Flag


Published June 1, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 21, 2022 at 2:28 p.m.

Randolph Union High School students raising the Black Lives Matter flag in 2019 - COURTESY OF WHITE RIVER VALLEY HERALD/TIM CALABRO
  • Courtesy Of White River Valley Herald/Tim Calabro
  • Randolph Union High School students raising the Black Lives Matter flag in 2019

The Black Lives Matter flag flew in front of Randolph Union High School for three years, but an administrator abruptly had it taken down last month over legal concerns. On May 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Boston had discriminated when it refused to raise the banner of a Christian group on a city flagpole. That case has clear-cut ramifications for schools if they allow one flag — and not another — to fly on campus, said Layne Millington, superintendent of Vermont's Orange Southwest School District.

On May 16, the Orange Southwest school board adopted a policy that allows its schools to fly only the American and Vermont flags.

Those who were instrumental in raising the Black Lives Matter flag back in 2019 say its swift, unceremonious removal is a demoralizing blow after years of work to make the school a better place for marginalized students. The flag was "a symbolic representation that our school wasn't standing for any hate," 2020 graduate Emily Baker said.

The Black Lives Matter flag has spurred a long-running controversy in the district, pitting those who believe the community must reckon with incidents of racism against others who consider the flag divisive. Other Vermont school districts have adopted flag policies in recent years that outline processes for students to request special flags to fly on campus. The differing approaches raise the question of whether the stance of Orange Southwest is overly cautious.

Special educator Dana Decker, a 12-year district veteran, began co-teaching a Racial Justice Alliance class at the high school in the fall of 2018. The elective was created after several students hung the Black Lives Matter flag outside Randolph Union High School the previous March without permission. Then-principal Elijah Hawkes removed it and told the students that if they wanted it back up, they'd have to first learn more about and engage the community around issues of race.

About 10 students took the first class. They studied the history of racial injustice, as well as the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements. They, in turn, taught small groups of fellow students and faculty members about what they had learned.

Sam McIntyre, who graduated from Randolph Union High School last year, enrolled in the elective two years in a row. He said the class was a safe and accepting space in a school environment that could feel hostile.

As a Black student in a district that is more than 94 percent white, McIntyre said he was sometimes targeted. In middle school, a fellow student called him the N-word after McIntyre told him to be quiet during a fire drill. It was the first time McIntyre had ever heard the word spoken.

In January 2019, members of the Racial Justice Alliance sought permission to raise the Black Lives Matter flag as "an important step in creating a more just school." Principal Hawkes approved the request, and the flag was hoisted during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly.

Soon afterward, a community member at a school board meeting questioned whether students of color had actually experienced racism or fabricated their concerns in order to get the flag raised. In response, Hawkes penned a letter, published in the White River Valley Herald, that detailed recent incidents in the school community: a comment in the hallway comparing a student of color's family to monkeys, a student using the N-word in gym class, a swastika carved on a tray in the cafeteria.

In recent months, superintendent Millington has spoken publicly about intolerant parents, including one who yelled slurs at a transgender student and another who threatened violence against a teacher of color, who later quit. Last fall, the Black Lives Matter flag was stolen.

The flag issue flared again this spring, after Millington canceled a baseball team fundraiser at Chick-fil-A based on complaints that the company supported anti-LGBTQ groups. Community members mobilized to protest that decision and the Black Lives Matter flag at an April school board meeting. Speakers included John Klar, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and conservative commentator who is now running for Vermont Senate in Orange County; and Northfield Police Chief John Helfant, an Orange Southwest parent.

While the Black Lives Matter flag had been allowed to fly, Helfant said, students wearing apparel depicting guns and "Don't Tread on Me," "Only Two Genders" and Trump 2020 slogans had been made to remove the clothes or cover them up.

Klar, a lawyer, accused Millington of violating federal law by flying the Black Lives Matter flag and said the school district had the duty to remove "an overtly partisan, ideological flag."

At the next board meeting, on May 11, Helfant spoke again, urging the board to adopt a policy that would allow the public display of the U.S. and Vermont flags only. Helfant cited the Shurtleff v. Boston decision, which faulted the city for not hoisting a Christian flag after letting other banners fly.

"Once you allow one flag other than those governmental flags to fly, you have to allow all different flags to fly — otherwise we face serious litigation," Helfant said. "You either got to open it all up or shut it all the way down."

Millington offered the board members his interpretation of the Supreme Court decision, which hewed closely to Helfant's.

After the meeting, Helfant emailed Millington and board members, calling on them to remove the Black Lives Matter flag immediately and instead fly the "Don't Tread on Me" flag through the summer. He also requested that the "Thin Blue Line" flag be flown for the first 30 days of the next school year in support of police officers. The following morning, Millington directed staff to remove the Black Lives Matter flag.

Five days later, the school board approved a policy that only allows the American and Vermont flags to fly. In a resolution preceding the vote, the board acknowledged that the district needs to do more to create "a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students."

Decker will switch school districts to work in the White River Valley Supervisory Union next year, largely because of the hostility she feels in Randolph. She said she didn't understand the urgency to pass the restrictive flag policy and was disappointed that her students weren't consulted before the decision was made.

When the flag came down, Decker hung it in her classroom. But after several community members complained last week, Millington ordered her to remove it. Failure to do so, he wrote to her in an email, would be considered an act of insubordination. When Decker at first refused, she said, Millington told her, through a union representative, to leave the school grounds for the remainder of the day, which she did.

Hawkes, who is now director of school leadership programs at the Upper Valley Educators Institute, contrasted the thoughtful process of raising the flag with the hasty one of taking it down.

"If ... members of the community feel like it's important that the flag come down, there's an opportunity there for school and district leadership to engage in the same kind of extensive dialogue and learning that we did when the flag [went] up," Hawkes said. "That seems to have been ... missing in the latest decision, which some might see as a prudent decision made in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling. But I have to wonder, was it prudence or was it panic?"

Jay Diaz, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, suggested the latter. Diaz believes that Shurtleff v. Boston is only tangentially related to schools. That's because courts typically give schools more leeway than municipalities in restricting speech when it is deemed disruptive or hostile to an educational environment, Diaz said.

He believes there's a strong case to be made that "Don't Tread on Me" or "Blue Lives Matter" flags are associated with the exclusion of students of color and therefore would be disruptive to their education.

Further, Boston was faulted for lacking a written flag policy, Diaz said. School districts should have clear policies for approving flag requests, he said, but barring all but Vermont and American flags "feels like an overreaction."

In an email to Seven Days, Klar wrote that he agrees with Diaz that schools have more legal latitude to restrict speech than municipalities do. But he echoed Helfant's belief that if schools exclude one flag that bears a particular message, they should restrict all flags with messages. Flying only the U.S. and state flags allows Vermont schools, which Klar characterized as "social justice-obsessed," to focus on "core learning skills rather than become hotbeds of social strife," he wrote.

At least one other Vermont school district appears to agree. Windham Northeast Supervisory Union has drafted a policy that would only allow American and Vermont flags. The policy, which the board will vote on this month, was prompted by a student's request in March to fly the Black Lives Matter flag at Bellows Falls Union High School.

Other school districts have taken a different approach.

For several years, Essex Westford and Champlain Valley school districts, the two largest in Vermont, have had policies allowing students to request that special flags be flown. Black Lives Matter flags fly in both districts.

In early May, the Maple Run Unified School District in St. Albans passed a similar policy. It also says flags must represent ideas that support the school district's mission and values.

On May 18, the school board voted 9-0 to raise the Black Lives Matter flag after the Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans Social Justice Club submitted a request. In a survey of 400 students, staff and community members, the group found that 78 percent of respondents were in favor of raising the flag.

Before the vote, board member Reier Erickson, who is Black, spoke about dropping off his two children at the elementary school the previous Friday and seeing the N-word written in chalk in front of an outdoor classroom entrance. He also brought up the racially motivated shooting rampage at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y.

Raising the Black Lives Matter flag "is such a buoy for me," Erickson said. "As a person who has children at these schools, it just means so much to me."

BFA-St. Albans senior Elio Haag said it was important to the Social Justice Club that a majority of the school community approved of the flag. To Haag, who is transgender, the flag represents a challenge to the school community.

"It's a symbol for taking steps to preserve kindness in a world where kindness is not always present," Haag said.

Maple Run has ordered Black Lives Matter flags for every school in the district. They will be raised during a ceremony this week.

The original print version of this article was headlined "'Prudence or ... Panic?'"