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Backstory: Story With the Longest Legs


Published December 27, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 27, 2017 at 10:03 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Isaiah Hines

Some stories won't quit. For example: the Rebels sports mascot debate in South Burlington. After the school board voted in February to drop the name on the grounds that it had racist associations with the Confederacy, I thought the long saga had concluded.

Wrong. The vote prompted a stream of news that continued through June and has since slowed but not dried up. Still unresolved: A lawsuit brought by Rebels supporters seeking a public vote on the name change continues to wend its way through Vermont Superior Court. In mid-December, a judge denied the school district's motion to dismiss the case, and the lawsuit appeared to be heading to trial.

Meanwhile, the school sports teams have been officially rebranded as the Wolves, and athletic programming continues under that moniker.

Off the fields, the name change triggered an intense dialogue about race in a mostly white suburban community that spilled over into criminal court.

A review of this year's South Burlington news: A parent pleaded guilty to stalking Isaiah Hines, the student leader who led the push to retire the Rebels; one of his classmates pleaded guilty to writing racist graffiti targeting Hines on the high school football field; and a different student who pleaded guilty to threats that resulted in multiple school lockdowns was back in court last month for violating conditions.

I sat down with Hines in June to talk about the surprising developments. I'd interviewed him briefly before, on the telephone and at a rally. When I arrived at Starbucks, he was already there, drinking some big, cold, sweet coffee drink with 10 adjectives in its name. We talked about the seemingly endless developments in the Rebels saga.

He was surprised to find himself at the center of such a storm in his senior year. He never expected to become a mini celebrity in his hometown or to be targeted by racist graffiti left on the football field at his high school. His upbeat demeanor changed when we discussed that incident, which seemed to have wounded him.

Still, Hines appeared resilient and ready to move on. I had to keep reminding myself: This kid is just a teenager. 

While the stories persist, Hines has forged ahead. He is now a freshman at Columbia University, and I have no trouble imagining him navigating the Big Apple.

South Burlington isn't the only Vermont community dealing with race-related issues. This year, I also wrote about problems in the Milton school district and on college campuses including Middlebury and the University of Vermont.

Vermont's population, though growing more diverse, is still about 95 percent white. As a result, some of my sources have suggested, the state is ill-equipped to discuss subtleties around racism, equal opportunity and fairness. Others say Vermont is a prisoner to political correctness that shuts down authentic debate and drives dissenting views underground in an unhealthy way.

As a journalist who happens to be white, I broach stories about race in a manner I hope is fair and comprehensive. Readers let me know loud and clear when they don't think a story has met that goal. One thing is certain: The discussion is not over. I predict Vermont will continue to wrestle with racial questions in the coming year, giving all of us an opportunity to keep talking, and writing, about this important subject.