Editor’s note: The Reporter has spoken with the authors of the following two letters and are withholding their names to protect the identity of their children, who were involved in the May 31 incident involving Pepe the Frog, which The Reporter detailed in a front-page article last week.
School mishandled Pepe the Frog incident
Please omit my name as I want to respect my son’s privacy. Call me the mother of a suspended student.
My son was one of the two suspended on the day of the drawing and I wanted to share with the community what that was like for me, the mother.
I was called at work and told my son was involved in a hate crime at his school and that they had identified him thru the security cameras, they could not tell who the person drawing was, but could only identify my son and that my son knew who it was and would not give up his friend’s name. They mentioned if he did not cooperate they could press charges, this would go on his record, he could possibly even go to court or more serious consequences, the administration mentioned they had already consulted with the local police officer on staff and this consisted of hate crime.
Now picture this young widow, with four kids, doing her best to raise her children to be loving community members. The only history my kids had was of receiving compliments from school staff of how helpful, compassionate and kind they were to all kids in their classes. Regardless of age, sex, disability, or color. NOW, here I was trembling of fear that some how I missed a sign, that my son was getting involved with the wrong crowd, but HOW? I had his friends over all the time, my house was known as the party house, the open house, where ALLl were welcome. I myself, a minority, how can this happen??? Where did I go wrong? Why do I have to go to that school alone? I wished their dad was here to walk in with me. I held back the tears as I drove to his school to convince him to cooperate. Before entering the school, I took a deep breath, called a friend to calm me down and tried my best to walk in in a calm, respectful way.
My son was waiting for me, looking sorry for troubling me, he knows how hard I work to support our family. But I also know he could sometimes be strong willed but at the same time the most loyal person in the world. The administration asked if he would take a sword for his friend. He said he would. I AM PROUD of him for that. Too many self centered kids out there, I raised a good young man who often put others first. The kid I had to tell he could not give away any of his toys without checking with me first. Many moms can relate.
The administration did not tell me the whole story, they didn’t know it either, but the fear tactics were obvious. They mentioned they would make an example of my son. They mentioned that he was innocent, only a bystander, and that they knew that neither kid (by then they had the name of the one who drew the picture) meant that drawing to be racist, but regardless, they had to make an example of them. I begged them not to ruin my son’s perfect record and suggested community service instead, they liked that idea. They suspended him for the rest of the day and did not allow him to join the track practice that afternoon, even though the state finals were the next day. I not knowing the whole story agreed and thanked them for not punishing him worse.
The next day I found out the whole story, the drawing was made in art class, in front of a teacher and other students. So basically my son was suspended for being in school, in class, but mostly for being loyal, a quality the administration does not value or respect. I was furious. Plus I also researched and learned about the history of the frog. The drawing was not racist, it was not meant to be racist, I know the student artist and he is a wonderful young man that was certainly mistreated by the administration.
What is next??? Someone draws a racist picture of “Hello Kitty” in a racist pose and then all non racist drawings of “Hello Kitty” will be banned from my daughter’s school? Do I have to get her a new lunch box because some racist group stole the artist original intent and made it racist? HOW FAR DO WE GO???
I am minority and I am not offended by the drawing of a frog in a pensive pose, if others are then that’s their right to be, but their rights CAN NOT override our students’ artistic rights to expression if that expression is not drawn in a racist manner. Each case must be well researched before actions and consequences are decided and before they call the parents and cause so much pain and sorrow and heartache. Zero tolerance does not mean checking our common sense at the door. I have not yet received an apology from the administration. But they did apologize to my son and said that sometimes adults make mistakes. Although this part was left out from the article.
I love our local schools and I appreciate how inclusive we are. But common sense still has to be prevalent before making decisions that involve not only the students but their whole family.
The mother of the loyal friend.
Reporter article flawed; school administrators appear to have learned nothing from incident
When I flew back home from my father’s funeral two weeks ago, the first thing I had to process was, “Who the heck is Pepe the frog?” My wife and I have tried to take the “high road” on this issue, with open-minded tolerance and understanding of what we perceived to be mistakes of good intention. We stayed off social media, we wrote no letters, and we sought no legal counsel. After since talking with Mr. Reardon and the Editor, I’ve learned that much of what we perceived to be a one-sided story, in part owes to the cautious stance that school’s typically adopt when questioned by media on cases involving minors. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to provide our side of the story.
Imagine a bright sunny day when all the art students are drawing on the sidewalk with chalk for a school-sponsored event to help them enjoy their last few days of school. Teachers and students are laughing and having a good time. One boy draws two images, one of Garfield the cat, the other of a frog named “Pepe”. Kids are taking selfies with the images and complementing one another on their work. The next day, the boy is unexpectedly called into the Vice-principal’s office and told he could “potentially be charged with a hate crime.” His mother is instructed to take him home for the day but is not told that her son has been suspended.
Later that Friday afternoon, after hearing out our son’s testimony that he bore no ill intent, without digging deeper into the history of the meme, and without enlisting input from teachers or students who monitored the event, the vice-principals issued a school-wide email to all EHS students, stating that an “incident of racism” had taken place on campus and would “not [be] tolerated”, with most everyone already knowing my son was involved. Imagine my wife’s shock when she came home from work to read this email later that afternoon.
Nevertheless, my wife and I sat down patiently with the EHS administration the following Monday morning with our son, after he submitted to them an even-tempered, eight-page email defending his own honor. He made the eloquent argument that when an extremist group highjacks an image for its own bent ideology, granting them exclusive rights to the use of that image only empowers them to do it again, but he also apologized to anyone he might have unintentionally offended. In fact, before the Alt-Right stole the image for their own agenda just three years ago, it had already become “one of the most popular memes on the internet”, and had been used in several school projects pre-dating this infringement. To the Reporter’s credit, they quoted the Anti-Defamation League website that “the majority of Pepe images are benign, so it’s important to examine use of the character in context“. This context was never considered in the case of our son’s drawing, and as result, several fellow students sent emails to the administration that weekend, protesting the way the situation was handled.
On the following Monday morning, however, we tried to sympathize with their position. They have a difficult job. They absolutely must make sure that our schools create a climate that makes people of all backgrounds feel welcomed, and not threatened on the basis of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Our country has an ugly history and still has a long way to go from here; this only makes this mission more obligatory. We shared this sentiment that morning, right after they acknowledged they had learned a lot from the event and from my son’s email and agreed to send the email to his fellow students. We discussed the matter as civil adults, and we all saw it as a teachable moment for the administration.
At the end of the meeting, we clarified with the administration that our son was in fact never under suspension, and this would never go on his record. All we wanted was quiet recognition that our son did nothing wrong, and that nothing like this would happen again…to anyone. More than anything, we wanted the entire matter done.
Unfortunately, the Reporter decided to post a front page story last week on this issue; not really sure why. At this point, we felt we had to speak up. We understand the need to be fair and impartial, and to avoid divulging too much detail to the press about a case involving a minor, but we were stunned to read that both Reardon and Johnson declined to comment on “whether they believed the artist had any ill intent”. We felt that this conclusion had already been settled upon when they cleared our son of any wrong-doing a week prior.
When we left that meeting in early June, we left with an understanding that administrators make mistakes, even good-intended ones. We were hopeful for positive change. The only thing we asked for was a promise that they would be more even-handed and seek evidence and input from other students before handing out premature verdicts in the future. But the tone of last week’s story gave us reason to fear that nothing was learned that Friday. Instead of creating a dialog about how they plan to handle things differently in the future, we only read from Ben Johnson how “tackling issues head-on shows students that administrators like him have their back.” We have to ask then, who had the backs of our son and his friend in all of this? Instead of acknowledging that this was a “teachable moment” on how to better tackle their own ignorance on the issues and handle a similar situation differently in the future, all I read was how they felt justified in swift action because “The potential for this to have harm was enough for us to act on it.” Adhering to this principle, without consideration for who is taken down in the process, led to costly collateral damage.
Somewhere along the line, people at the top lost track of the “backs” of the only real victims in this entire affair – two students who were wrongly suspended from school before given fair due process. To our community, we only ask that they leave our son and his friend out of their public discourse on social media; they never wanted any of this attention. The main questions left open now for my wife and I are, “Did the administration learn anything from these events?”, and “Why did the Reporter, when they knew the limits of their own investigation, think that this was front page news?”
Parent of art student who drew Pepe the Frog
Vermont State College system not ‘sitting still’
Emerson Lynn’s recent commentary in this paper about a lack of creative leadership in higher education was appropriately placed under the heading of “Opinion.”
I have read and valued Emerson’s perspectives for years. In this case, it may be helpful to add some facts to supplement and better focus this opinion piece.
In fact, the Vermont State Colleges System has strong, forward-thinking leadership. Uniquely talented Presidents, each well-matched for our colleges and universities. Several of Vermont’s leading higher education voices in Chancellor Jeb Spaulding and his senior team. And, the VSC System’s governing board reflects broad, deep and committed talent well-suited to addressing our challenges.
In the past four years alone that commitment has led to the nationally recognized merger of two colleges into one stronger, dynamic university; consolidated administrative functions saving millions in the System’s yearly budgets; new and innovative programs to boost student retention and degree completion; and creation of several new certificate and apprenticeship programs for working-age adults across the state—to name just a few actions.
By no means are we sitting still.
The Vermont State Colleges System and its member institutions, Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College are well aware of the challenges we face. These challenges are not unique to our colleges and universities, but to all small, tuition-dependent colleges and universities across the Northeast and America. We are already deploying strategies at the System and college level to respond to declining numbers of high school graduates, pricing pressure from our regional competitors, changing student preferences, and the reality of Vermont’s subpar state funding. We are motivated by recognition that the future of Vermont, and the State’s capacity to realize the potential of generations of future students, will require a thriving public college system.
On its own initiative, the VSCS Board of Trustees has recently embarked on a critical initiative to clearly articulate the forces bearing down on higher education institutions like ours and to generate additional strategic actions that can be taken to ensure our colleges and universities will not merely survive, but thrive. We will institute further innovations that will support vibrant, accessible, affordable education for Vermonters that is relevant to their careers and the economy of the future, and that will bring long-term financial sustainability for the VSC System.
It is with commitment to our core mission–“for the benefit of Vermont”– that we work to secure the future of affordable, accessible public post-secondary education across the State. We look forward to keeping readers of this paper up-to-date on this work.
J. Churchill Hindes
Chair, VSCS Board of Trustees