EHS mishandled Pepe incident
Before I dive into my thoughts on how the recent Pepe incident, I would first like to ask to remain anonymous. This is not necessarily because I am worried about how those closest to me will react but rather because I believe that what I am about to say represents many of my fellow students’ opinions on how the incident was handled.
To be blunt, I think this situation was very poorly handled.
In an effort to immediately alert students about what had happened, Ben Johnson wrote his email the day that the incident occurred. However, this only shifted the focus from educating students about hate symbols to the question of “Who drew it?” Later, after the administration talked to the student, they sent a copy of the student’s 8-paged response to the entire school. The tone in the body of the email didn’t seem like the administrators were willing to admit that they had been mistaken in suspending the students. While I understand that teachers and staff members need to maintain order in a school, it felt like a classic incident of the administration pretending that they are “above it all.” This was captured in the Essex Reporter’s article which states, “Nor would he [Reardon] or Johnson say whether they believed the artist had ill-intent.”
It was clear in this incident the administration didn’t do enough research into this matter. Had they dug a little deeper, done a little more reading, they would have known that Pepe was not always a racist symbol. I remember when Pepe was a harmless frog three years ago (which was not even that long ago) and I would double tap to like Pepe-related memes on Instagram. I even designed a planet suitable for Pepes to inhabit as part of my Earth and Physical Science (now known as Earth and Space Science) class and people thought it was creative that I had incorporated pop culture into my science project. What is ironic is that in the first email sent by Ben Johnson to all students, there was a link to the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Symbol database, and at the bottom of the page, it states: “All the symbols depicted here must be evaluated in the context in which they appear.” It was clear that in this case, the Pepe itself had not been correctly evaluated in its context.
In the same initial email to students there was another prime example of the administration failing to do adequate research as Johnson warned students about the OK gesture being a hate symbol. This is completely false. The OK gesture was created as a hoax hate symbol on 4chan by extremists and the EHS administration had fallen right into the extremists’ intention of getting people to deem an ordinary symbol as one of hate.
While talking to students at other EWSD schools, I have heard legitimate issues of racism and homophobia that go unreported because students feel uncomfortable and unsupported. And at EHS, I know that there are teachers who have made sexist, racist, or islamaphobic remarks to a student’s face. However, most, if not all of these incidents have gone unreported. What has Essex and EWSD as a whole done to make students feel comfortable reporting these incidents, to know that their voice won’t be pushed back down? Not much besides the “see something say something” and “be kind be safe be respectful” mantras that gets tossed around at the periodic class meetings. Students at Essex High School know that when put to the test, the administration won’t handle serious cases and talk to teachers who make inappropriate comments. Students have been shown time and time again that calls for change are met with only inaction.
To conclude, it is sad that through my EHS education, I know how to properly conduct research on a topic, whether it be for a presentation or essay, while the administrators in the same building seemingly don’t. And I think that the majority of my peers would agree with this sentiment. They were just looking to punish a student to give the appearance that they were combating racism “head-on” when in reality they were taking the easy way out. I’m not here for this tokenism.
So residents of Essex Junction, Essex Town, and Westford, don’t be fooled by what a few upper-level administrators are saying. Continue to hold the district accountable so that serious issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia are actually addressed. Your voice can make a difference.
Take Pepe incident seriously
I am grateful that the Essex Reporter has given the community an opportunity to enter the conversation by sharing the news of Pepe the Frog being drawn outside at the high school. While it is reassuring to want to lean on the history of Pepe and restore the benign origin, we would find ourselves on a similar journey with the thousands-years old swastika. Hopefully we can agree that the meaningful symbolism of the swastika is the one that exists with us now, following the Holocaust.
Of course context matters but placing Pepe proximate to a Black Lives Matter flag is not a benign act. And though we may want to find a very large “boys will be boys” rug to sweep this under, we shouldn’t. Tolerance of the symbols of white supremacy (Pepe, an out-turned okay hand gesture, an “88”, a swastika, etc.) will harm our community in two very significant ways. First, our tolerance for these transgressions lets our children know that our town is fertile soil for white supremacy. Second, it sends a very strong signal to people of color that Essex is not a safe place for them to make their home, raise their children, build their lives. Both of these effects will rot our community from the inside out and the outside in. As community members and as parents, we owe it to our community to take this issue very seriously and to not wish it away. Hope is most definitely not a plan.
Addendum: Please note that this letter was submitted in response to the news story and is not a direct response to the parent letters from last week’s issue.
Response to gun safety legislation veto
Last week Governor Scott, in a massively disappointing move, vetoed reasonable gun safety legislation that easily passed both the Senate and the House. I issued the following statement in response:
“Across this country politicians have been cowardly and failed to take reasonable steps to protect citizens from gun violence despite tragedy after tragedy.
Last year Vermont went against the grain by taking action. The 2018 law, backed by an overwhelming majority of Vermonters, required universal background checks, raised the purchase age of all firearms to 21 years of age, and banned the sale of high capacity magazines. I was proud to join the Speaker and the Governor at the bill signing.
This year the Vermont Senate and House took another common sense step forward by passing a bill that would create a 24 hour waiting period for the purchase of handguns. In a state with a serious suicide by firearm problem, this modest measure would give individuals going through a very hard time a day to get through whatever it is they’re facing – a 24 hour chance to get to the other side of a dark time.
S.169 would also help prevent some instances of impulsive gun violence intended to be inflicted upon others.
That’s why the Governor’s veto is so hard to understand and so very disappointing.
The Governor’s letter explaining his veto suggested we need to look to long-term strategies to rebuild our mental health system, or to address childhood poverty, or to tackle our addiction crisis. These strategies have scarcely registered in the Governor’s proposed budgets each year, and in any event will do little to nothing to prevent gun deaths in 2019 or 2020.
Now was and is the time to act on reasonable gun safety legislation.”
According to data assembled by Vermont Public Radio, there were 568 gun deaths in Vermont from 2011-2018. 88.6% of these were suicides by firearm.
Senate Pro Tempore Tim Ashe