By Todd Smith | The Caledonian Record
Last week the Ascutney School Board fired Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley for a comment she posted on her personal Facebook page. She wrote:
I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with the coercive measures taken to get to this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point. While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race. While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement? What about all others who advocate for and demand equity for all? Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist.
Riley has been on on paid administrative leave since June. At the time the school board said it was “uniformly appalled,” and unanimously “resolved that she will no longer lead our school.”All six members signed a statement that said (in part):
The ignorance, prejudice, and lack of judgment in these statements are utterly contrary to the values we espouse as a school board and district.” The board added that Windsor is “not a racially diverse school, so it is easy to forget or to be unconscious to the racial inequities that exist in the form of White Privilege in our community and our state. If we are not acknowledging White Advantage and working to remove it, we are not attempting to provide our minority students an equal opportunity for education. If we are not teaching all our students that bias exists in our community and working to remove it, we are complicit in its perpetuation.
Superintendent David Baker told VTDigger in June, “I thought her account had been hacked because the post was so insensitive to the recent plight of our minority community.”
The board last week said the post was deeply harmful and disruptive and Riley’s lack of an unambiguous and wholesale apology was grounds for dismissal.
We read Riley’s post differently, but Digger offers a back story for additional context. A former student apparently asked Principal Riley to remove an American flag painted on the school’s hillside ahead of a June 5 graduation ceremony. Riley said “no” and was asked to include a Black Lives Matter flag next to the American flag.
Riley was interested and asked the former student if she had a flag. The young woman said “no” but suggested that Riley have one painted next to the American flag. Riley reportedly asked the buildings and grounds supervisor about it before deciding against the move. In some people’s eyes that decision signaled a lack of sympathy for the cause from Riley.
It also might be worth noting that Riley is a member of the Vermont Equity Practitioners Network whose mission is to “improve the equity and quality of educational opportunities for all students.”
That sounds like a good and reasonable mission and makes it even more challenging for us to understand the reactions of the school board and superintendent in this case.
Although we’re fully cognizant of all the insidious and dramatic ways structural racism infects American systems, we don’t think militant censorship and cancel culture serves anyone well. The BLM cause is a critically important one but speech and thought police aren’t going to help. In fact, we expect (and hope) the Ascutney board will soon have a First Amendment lawsuit on their hands that they will most assuredly lose.
And therein lies an important point.
We believe the best thing about the United States is liberty and equal protection under the law. A bedrock of that liberty is freedom of speech and expression. We also wholeheartedly believe the worst thing about the United States is our violent, racist history that denied these very freedoms to a huge swath of Americans.
It makes little sense to us to sacrifice the former in an effort to begin rectifying the vast evils of the latter.
Todd M. Smith is the publisher of the Caledonian Record, where this editorial first appeared. He lives in St. Johnsbury.