The Black Lives Matter flag will fly at Essex High School and Westford Elementary for the remainder of the school year after two student requests earned unanimous school board support last week.
The issue was back before the board for the third time since a trio of Westford students asked permission to hoist the flag at their K-8 school. A group of Essex High School also attended for the first-time Tuesday night with its own request.
“I feel accomplished,” Westford seventh-grader Rosie Whitney said after the decisions. “Like we finally got it done.”
Her two schoolmates, Belle Pitcher and Virginia Cobb, agreed, as did Denetra Reeves, a sophomore at EHS who garnered about 400 signatures on a petition she started in February.
Reeves attended the May 15 meeting along with some members of the school’s diversity club. She said she was inspired by other Vermont schools that raised the flag, including Montpelier and Burlington.
“It brings us all together,” she said.
The board delayed a decision on Westford’s request earlier this month after legal counsel suggested members create guidelines before weighing in.
On May 15, superintendent Beth Cobb offered a new procedure that says all requests must come through the administration before they’re sent to the school board. Requests must be student-led, time-specific and include a petition showing student support. Hearing that earlier this month, Westford students returned with a petition of 35 students — just under half of the 5-8 student body.
The procedure also says students younger than middle school can neither be asked for support nor can they put forward requests of their own, and the board holds the right to evaluate whether any flag is offensive or “contrary to the values of EWSD.”
Some board members said they hoped to see an added component that pushes requests beyond just raising a flag — what they see as a symbolic gesture — into a broader discussion about whatever issue students champion. Cobb said that would be on her list of questions when requests land on her desk.
The procedure was based on legal advice outlined at the board’s May 1 meeting, at which some audience members had questioned the vagueness of the timeframe.
Board chairwoman Martha Heath said counsel followed up last week and said the flagpole should be primarily for American and Vermont flags, while other requests should be for “very limited periods of time.”
Member Kim Gleason added the lawyer’s reasoning centered on the board “asserting control over the flagpole.”
“Having it be wide open and longer,” she explained, “we are in some ways not asserting the control that is ours.”
The assertion of government speech shouldn’t take precedent over the desires of the student body, however, said Henry Harris, a member of the Vermont National Lawyers Guild.
“I really applaud the spirit of trying to support and promote student agency wherever we get the opportunity,” he said. “This is where we’ve got it.”
The board eventually decided to allow the flag to be raised at Westford for the rest of the school year. After that, students must return with another request.
EHS students offered a similar request when it was their turn.
Dominque Sweat, a senior and member of the diversity club, said it’s important for Essex High School, where only 4 percent of students are African American, to show it’s an inclusive and supportive community for all people.
Sweat said the club understands there may be some negative response from some who disagree with their request, but she believed the benefits outweighed that risk.
“By flying the Black Lives Matter flag, we hope that it will spark thoughtful discussion on race in our community,” Sweat said.
The club wants to raise the flag during the school’s advisory period and would like to host a ceremony with speakers for any students who would like to attend. The club’s adviser, school counselor Andrew Roy, said it planned to meet Thursday after school to make some decisions.
The BLM requests have sparked debate across social media platforms in recent weeks, and a few parents have attended meetings with their own concerns.
Derek Cote, whose son goes to Hiawatha, urged the board back in February to resist following the trend set by Burlington and Montpelier. He called the Black Lives Matter flag a “racially motivated idea” that calls out a certain group of people and “gives everybody else the finger.”
On Tuesday, he again questioned why a flag representing a political group should be allowed to fly at a public school. Heath said the board’s lawyer ruled the flag did not represent a political movement, but Cote wasn’t convinced.
“It’s no different than asking to fly the Make America Great Again flag, or Obama for president. Same as asking to fly a Confederate battle flag. Where do you make the distinction?” he asked.
Cote also directed questions toward the EHS students, asking why they didn’t choose to instead raise the All Lives Matter flag, which he has flying in his front yard.
“To show that we are a diverse community,” Sweat said. “And that we like to talk about race issues and we like to get African Americans involved.” She added the club is new and the flag is just the start of its work.
Most speakers at the May 15 meeting did support the student requests. One attendee brought a Black Lives Matter lawn sign. Others pushed back against Cote.
“[BLM] is saying all lives matter,” Alissa Parrish said. “It is saying black lives matter, too. It’s about inclusion.”
The Westford students were visibly jubilant outside the high school after the board’s decision. They said it was a long process, but they were happy the work paid off. They wasted no time, either, raising the flag on Wednesday morning.
All three said they will request raising the flag again next school year and looked forward to bringing in any younger students who also wish to participate.
Following the votes, Heath spoke directly to the Westford students. She said their work has been “exemplary,” and she thanked them for their patience.
Cobb shared a similar sentiment. “You paved the pathway,” she said.