More than 500 members of the Mill River community have signed a petition against flying Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ flags at school campuses that make up the Mill River Unified Union School District.
The schools in the union are located in Clarendon, Shrewsbury, Tinmouth, and Wallingford. The union school board approved flying the controversial flags in an 8-1-1 vote during the board’s June 17 meeting.
Watch the board discussion in the video
Art Peterson, a local resident seeking office as a state representative in the Rutland-2 district, disagreed with the decision, and helped create and circulate a petition against flying political flags at the schools.
“A group of us felt that something that important would require more than a unilateral decision by the school board,” he told True North. “We felt that the public needed to weigh in on it, and that wasn’t done. So we started the petition, circulated it, and got an awful lot of signatures.”
The petition urges the school board to present the issue to voters by Australian Ballot and to call a special meeting to address questions from the community.
Peterson said he started the petition because he doesn’t think the Black Lives Matter and Pride Flags represent all of the community.
“I think these flags will be divisive in the community and will do nothing but politicize and sexualize our kids’ education,” he said.
Todd Fillmore, a resident of Shrewsbury who also opposes flying political flags at schools, says the Vermont Constitution prohibits advocacy-oriented flags from being flown on public property.
“A common concern expressed was the clear lack of objectivity in actively promoting controversial political ideas on public school properties,” he wrote in a letter sent last week to board members.
Fillmore’s letter adds: “In a remarkably forward-leaning display of support for these two specific causes the MRU School board shrugged off those legitimate concerns, and seemingly abandoning all pretense of neutrality, simply pressed forward with their plan to display and promote these flags on public property in support of two narrow groups, or subsets, of the community. This act is nothing short of political endorsement of specific political groups to the exclusion of others. This sets a dangerous precedent.”
According to Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution, “government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community, and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single person, family, or set of persons, who are a part only of that community.”
That language, Fillmore argues, prohibits schools from supporting political groups.
Kirsten Eriksen, another parent who opposes flying the flags, told True North the flags promote segmentation and division into groups. She also said the culture at the school is hostile toward students with conservative views.
“It’s reverse racism and that’s what’s concerning to me,” she said. “I have children that have been discriminated against in the school system because of their beliefs, and I have a friend who’s child had a MAGA hat on [but] it got knocked off their head. … I don’t feel like our children are safe with conservative views in such a liberal environment.”
But Adrienne Raymond, one of the school board members who voted to raise the flags, said for her it’s not about the Black Lives Matter organization, but the message on the flag.
“I will clarify one thing. The board supported flying the flag that states the message that black lives matter,” she said. “We did not vote in favor or, even in thought of, the Black Lives Matter organization.”
The student who put the request to the board during the June 17 meeting is Reese Eldert-Moore, a 17-year-old student who recently completed her junior year at Mill River Union High School. Eldert-Moore’s mother is Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland NAACP chapter.
According to Eldert-Moore’s letter to the board, minority students are being harassed in Vermont schools.
“This is very important and valuable not just because MRUUSD has Black and brown students, I being one of them, but because we are dying,” she wrote. “The maltreatment of Black and Brown people is a pandemic that is killing us — some slowly through issues like health disparities and stress and some quickly like bullets to the bodies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.”
Tammy Heffernan, chairwoman of the board, also voted in favor of flying the political flags. During the June 17 meeting, she said “there is injustice that needs to be addressed.” She is working on an equity policy that Eldert-Moore requested, which will include a “zero-tolerance” policy towards racism.
The next school district board meeting, to be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, will be open for public input on the flags. Board members have proposed flying the flags during the first week back at school in the fall.