If ever there was a day for flag flying, today was that day.
Joined by a few dozen spectators, students gathered under cloudless skies to watch one of their own hoist a flag high above the campus of Essex High School. And just after 11 a.m. Thursday, as the banner peaked beneath the American flag, a breeze rippled its cloth to display its message clearly: Black Lives Matter.
“I’m really grateful,” senior Dominique Sweat said after the flag-raising. “I feel very supported, and I’m really excited that our group was able to pull this off.”
Sweat is a member of the EHS diversity club, which formed earlier this year to celebrate and promote acceptance and diversity among the student body. She and fellow members worked on their proposal for months before attending a school board meeting May 15.
There, they presented a petition started by sophomore Denetra Reeves that earned over 400 student signatures. And like a group of Westford students who first approached the board, they too earned unanimous approval to fly the flag for the rest of the school year. Westford students raised the flag May 16.
For Sweat, the flag represents inclusion, diversity and acceptance – what she called important messages for a school where dozens of students choose to attend each year.
“This says, ‘Hey, we see you. Hey, we want you here,’” Sweat said. “We appreciate people of color, and we want [them] to feel included in our community.”
EHS and Westford are the latest Vermont schools to raise the BLM flag after Montpelier High School first did so in February. Burlington High School and several Brattleboro-area schools have since followed suit.
Thursday’s ceremony proceeded without a hitch, but the decision has its critics. A few residents pushed back at recent board meetings and others decried the BLM movement on social media, chastising the school board for allowing what they view as a political flag to fly at a public school. Some even questioned whether the students understand what BLM stands for.
EHS counselor Andrew Roy seems to think so.
“These students here are not too young to understand really anything,” said Roy, the diversity club’s faculty adviser. “They learn a college-level chemistry here. They learn Greek philosophy here. So they’re certainly not too young to understand social justice and civil rights issues.”
His students wholeheartedly agreed.
“We go through a lot of things in school, outside of school,” Reeves said. “We learn fast.”
Sweat added, “Youth have the power to create change.”
Their comments display a mentality that superintendent Beth Cobb said makes her proud to lead EWSD. Cobb has emphasized the role of student voice during her short tenure with the district and said creating a welcoming environment is vital for any school.
“For them to feel empowered to do something about it and change the world: They’re our future. And that’s pretty exciting to think about,” she said.
The initiative has even caught the attention of some local activists, like Jud Lawrie, a member of the Essex Resists group that’s held several protests in the Five Corners on topics like immigration and gun violence. Lawrie spoke in favor of the BLM movement at the May 15 board meeting and said he attended the ceremony Thursday to show the students he’s behind them.
“Makes me very hopeful,” Lawrie said. “Makes my heart smile. And I’m envious that I wasn’t this precocious when I was their age.”
Still, the students say there’s more work to be done. They plan to return to the school board this fall with another request.
“Equality is a struggle that is not going to be finished this week or tomorrow, maybe not even a million years,” junior Paolo Mattos said. “But as long as we can keep fighting, we will get as equal as we can.”