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Milton Students Return to Racial Turmoil

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Ann Bradshaw talking to the crowd - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Ann Bradshaw talking to the crowd

Emily Scott grew up in Milton, but attending school there was nothing like what her daughter is experiencing now. Scott, who is white, and her African American husband moved north with their daughter, Julissa Scott-Hamblin, last year from Burlington. The 14-year-old was happy attending school in the Queen City, but housing was prohibitively expensive.

Milton has turned out to be the exact opposite: It's more affordable, but from almost the first day of school, Julissa has felt marginalized because of her biracial background, according to her mother. It came as a shock after Burlington, which is more racially diverse.

"She was like, 'Mom, they really think it's a big deal that I'm black,'" Scott explained.

A big deal, indeed. In the past few months, leaders of this suburban school system 17 miles north of Burlington have been accused of ignoring racism directed at students, displaying racial bias in the district hiring process and failing to lead the community toward better race relations. School board meetings during the summer have erupted repeatedly into heated, sometimes tearful arguments as parents and teachers sounded off to elected members who vented back.

It started in early June with a Facebook post. Maria Twitty used social media to criticize the way Milton Middle School responded to the racially motivated harassment of her daughter, a 13-year-old African American now entering eighth grade.

Two weeks later, the school board passed over a black candidate for athletic director. His predecessor, who is also African American, alleged that it was because the group did not want "two consecutive black men" in the job.

That same month, Black Lives Matter Vermont began circulating a petition calling for the resignation of school superintendent Ann Bradshaw.

In July, Scott went public about Julissa, who, according to her mom, has heard the N-word repeatedly since she started school in Milton last September.

Two school board members resigned amid the upheaval: one in July, another in August.

Racially homogenous as it is, Vermont is slowly becoming more diverse. And the state's students are on the front lines of change. Even if their parents self-segregate in white neighborhoods and social groups, children sit in classrooms and on school buses with young people of varied racial backgrounds.

Those encounters are less common in Milton, though, where 96 percent of the district's 1,650 students are white, compared to 90 percent across Vermont, according to state Agency of Education statistics for the 2016-17 school year.

Milton has so few English language learner students that the state does not list the number so as to protect student privacy. By contrast, in school systems in southern Chittenden County such as Burlington, the student body is 65 percent white and 13 percent of all students are ELLs from around the globe. Even South Burlington, a relatively high-income suburb, is much more diverse than Milton — about 80 percent white and 5 percent ELL.

All three districts have struggled with diversity issues. South Burlington's heated debate over the now-excised Rebels sports nickname and its ties to the Confederacy set off a full year of public turmoil touching on race. Burlington has an official "diversity and equity plan" but hasn't met all of its goals — such as hiring more teachers of color and erasing race-based student achievement gaps.

Milton parents have been critical of the school's response — or lack thereof — to racism. In Scott's case, seven girls allegedly taunted Julissa, calling her "nigger" in a cellphone video, her mother said. Bradshaw acknowledged the video in a letter to Scott, writing: "In the course of an investigation, I learned that a highly offensive video with repeated racial slurs has been circulated among this group of students. As part of our effort to provide students with a positive opportunity for reconciliation, and to manage difficult conversations with peers, I plan to refer the students to the Essex Community Justice Center."

Julissa did not attend the voluntary meeting because Scott felt the session put her daughter in the same category as the other girls, whom she saw as the aggressors.

"I would like for more communication from the school and, when the parent calls, for something to actually be done," said Scott.

Ebony Nyoni, cofounder of BLMVT, is less diplomatic about the situation in Milton. "They need an army to come into that school district and get revived to a place where it's safe for all students and staff and the culture there is not one of white supremacy but of sharing and learning and respecting each other," she said.

In addition to Bradshaw's resignation, the BLMVT petition demands education on "diversity issues" for Milton school employees and calls for "consequences for any member of the school district, student or otherwise, who engages in any form of racial aggression." Some 337 supporters have signed on.

Bradshaw said she has no intention of stepping down from her $129,000-per-year superintendent job and assured, "We're taking this seriously." Her contract runs through 2020.

"We know that there's room for improvement," she said. "I think it's a sad commentary that racism in America is still with us, and we all need to reflect on our biases and look at how we can address those as individuals but also as organizations such as schools."

Bradshaw said privacy laws prevent her from responding with details on personnel matters or student discipline, or corroborating any aspect of the recent student-on-student racism allegations.

Julissa's case isn't the only one Milton is dealing with: Twitty said her daughter was wrongfully suspended after attempting to report to her teachers and principal that another student called her a "nigger." BLMVT spotlighted the case at a press conference this spring.

"When my daughter went to seek out help, she was the one who got yelled at" by a teacher, Twitty said. School officials said her daughter was "using an aggressive manner, aggressive words and threatening to harm someone," according to Twitty.

The mother insists that her daughter was frustrated by the lack of adult support in the face of racist bullying. Twitty, who asked that her daughter's name not be used in this story, suggested that Bradshaw resign for lack of leadership.

Bradshaw said she and the board are responding to the controversies and attempting to improve the racial climate in Milton. The athletic director job should be filled shortly, she said, and the school board formally apologized to the previous candidate, LeVar Barrino, for any miscommunication. That particular situation became racially charged when the outgoing AD, Michael Jabour, wrote a letter to school administrators suggesting that the school board was reluctant to hire Barrino because he is black.

Barrino declined to discuss the matter on Monday and referred Seven Days to his attorney, Elizabeth Miller. In an email, Miller said Barrino "thanks the many members of the Milton community and schools for their support. He and his family have moved on and will not be commenting further."

Bradshaw, too, wants the district to move on and learn from the summer of tumult. She assigned faculty and staff to read two books on race and cultural proficiency over the summer in an effort to expand their understanding of multiculturalism. She hired Minnesota-based author and diversity trainer Anthony Muhammad to lead mandatory workshops for teachers and staff, which took place last Thursday and Friday.

Muhammad is the same consultant who last year conducted "cultural audits" that explored teacher effectiveness, student social and academic success, and commitment to diversity and anti-bullying measures at Milton schools. The exercise was prompted by the 2012 suicide of a white student, which exposed extreme hazing and intimidation among members of the high school football team.

The audits found that teachers at the high school requested more effective ways to help poor, underperforming and disabled students, while those at the middle school described a "culture of complaint" that threatened morale. But the audit also praised the middle school for displaying a wealth of "culturally diverse symbols," including nods to marriage equality, Islam and Buddhism.

Race appears to be a touchier subject in Milton. In response to pressure from parents who attended meetings over the summer, the district hosted a community dialogue Monday evening — two days before the start of school. But many people in the audience expressed frustration when most of the time was spent on a long PowerPoint presentation about the district policies on hazing, harassment and bullying.

"There's literally nothing about race on the agenda," said Christine Vaughn, a parent who said her 15-year-old Asian American daughter "frequently gets called 'chink' or hears the word 'chink'" in Milton school hallways.

Also dismayed was Katrina Battle, a biracial graduate of Milton High School who started substitute teaching in the district last year. She formed her own community group, the Milton Inclusion & Diversity Initiative, earlier this summer, and it has been meeting to discuss school race issues.

Neither the school board members nor the school administration is listening, Battle said: "If we can't talk about race, we're never going to be able to fight this. We're never going to able to win this."

The Monday gathering may have been structured to avoid a repeat of a school board meeting on July 24, when 60 teachers and parents complained that the board was not responding adequately to race issues in the schools. Several board members retorted that teachers should be doing more, which generated counteraccusations of "teacher blaming" from the crowd.

At one point, then-board member Karen LaFond appeared to be near tears as she described being approached about the controversy. "I can't even walk into the grocery store," LaFond said.

In emotional remarks to the audience, LaFond, who is white, said that she joined the board to advocate for her children and others', and that it breaks her heart to hear "the N-word" being used. But she questioned the message of the Black Lives Matter slogan and said she felt judged by the color of her skin.

"All lives matter to me, 100 percent," LaFond said. She also suggested that the public was laying too many responsibilities at the feet of a volunteer board. "I cannot fix the world," LaFond said.

LaFond resigned August 10, about one month after another school board member, Jenn Taylor. Two new members — Greg Burbo and Michael Joseph — have since been appointed by the board to fill out the terms until election time.

At Monday's meeting, Joseph said weak policies have made the board and administration less effective than they should be. "I'm confident that we'll do it," he said of plans to improve the racial climate by tightening up hiring policies, creating a diversity and equity plan like Burlington's, and conducting more trainings for teachers and staff. In response to the crowd's complaints about the forum, he added: "Everybody take a deep breath, and let's just work on how we resolve the gaps in process and how we get things moving forward and educate ourselves and understand as quickly as possible so we can implement these changes."

Superintendent Bradshaw vowed that she's up to the job. "I'm grateful that we have the opportunity to look at where we are, move forward and do better."

Correction, September 4, 2017: This story was updated to reflect that Katrina Battle is biracial.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Milton Students Return to Racial Turmoil"

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