The Essex Westford School Board took no action last week on a student request to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at Westford Elementary, instead discussing guidelines that all requests must pass before being considered.
The proposal would require all requests include a specific timeframe for a flag to fly and a petition showing support beyond a few students making the request. Requests must adhere to the schools’ values — a stipulation the BLM request passes, superintendent Beth Cobb said, because it falls under the district’s focus on diversity and equity.
Members had planned to make a final decision on the student request at their May 1 meeting. But after seeking legal counsel, they shifted their focus toward the guidelines since those will apply to both the BLM request any in the future.
“Obviously, you can’t imagine everything that might come up in the future,” board chairwoman Martha Heath said. “But I think we want to do our best at setting up guidelines that we will be able to live with if and when other requests come.”
Heath said the board will likely vote on the rules at its next meeting, and the Westford students will need to follow the final stipulations before members consider their request.
“They still have some work to do,” Heath said at the meeting.
One question still lingering is whether the district should require a threshold of signatures before considering petitions. Some felt the number doesn’t matter.
“Whatever we suggest for petitions, we need to own the final decision and say we on the board support this,” board member Keeley Schell said. “There isn’t a number that I think accurately represents saying the students in our community support this.”
She also wondered if raising the flag alone was the most appropriate way to start a conversation around racial inequality.
“It’s the sort of thing that will share a message of solidarity with people throughout the country who believe the same way, but it is unlikely to have as much of an effect in changing minds within our own community,” she said.
Schell said a better first step would be hosting community engagements about the topic.
But board member Patrick Murray said that only works well when people want to participate, and opponents simply won’t show up.
“The flag being raised itself puts a symbol out there that forces the conversation,” he said.
Some of the dozen or so attendees shared mixed reactions to the students’ proposal.
Westford resident Becky Roy said she admired the students for starting the conversation but has concerns about BLM as an organization. She said what she’s read has shown her there is a lot of “politics that could go either way.”
She wondered if there was a way to still acknowledge that black lives matter with a flag that doesn’t represent the organization itself.
Ed Daudelin, an Essex Jct. resident, had a more pointed opinion. He called BLM an anti-police, pro-violence “terrorist organization” that has no place on a flagpole beside the American flag.
Fellow village resident Jud Lawrie said he’s a supporter of the BLM flag and challenged any claims the organization is pushing a racist agenda.
“Of course all lives matter,” he said. “Unfortunately, at this time in this country, some lives don’t matter as much, especially for black people and other people of color. Until all lives matter equally, the Black Lives Matter movement will be necessary.”
Julia Andrews, a Westford parent, said two children’s friends have reported difficult experiences because of their race.
“I hate to think of that happening in our town, but that’s the reality of what happens when you don’t look like everybody else,” she said.
Andrews said raising the BLM flag sends a signal, especially in a predominantly white town like Westford, that the community supports those who now “may feel left out or different.”
She also pointed to the lack of specifics from the board’s legal counsel and questioned the guidelines’ intent, saying they seem to protect the board from public criticism, not legal action.
And Belle Pitcher, one of the three Westford students who made the flag proposal, asked why the board’s lawyer suggested a short timeframe.
“Is it because [your lawyer] doesn’t want to see too much hate from people?” Belle asked. “Because if that’s the case, I’m willing to read every letter, I’m willing to listen to every call and I’m willing to read every social media post about this from people who either hate or are agreeing with us.”
Heath, board chairwoman, said she’s since requested the board’s counsel to share his rationale so the board could outline it before the vote.