Westford Elementary School could become the third Vermont public school to raise the Black Lives Matter flag after a trio of students approached the school board with a proposal.
Board members have referenced a petition circling Essex High School that calls for a similar proposal, but the April 17 meeting marks the first time an official request has made its way before the board.
The three students — sixth-grader Virginia Cobb and seventh-graders Rosie Whitney and Belle Pitcher — said they want Westford to be a supportive community for those suffering from social and racial injustices.
“By raising the flag, we raise awareness that this important work isn’t finished,” their presentation said.
The students said the movement shouldn’t be viewed as “anti-police,” but rather about helping “dismantle systemic racism in our culture and institutions.”
They said while racism is happening in their own community, the issue is widespread and could benefit from the support of “a small school like Westford.” They asked teachers to talk with students beforehand so they understand why the flag is raised, adding they’d be happy to present the topic in classrooms.
The board plans to make its decision at its May 1 meeting.
School board members took the opportunity to ask questions of the trio. Liz Subin asked the students how long they would like to see the flag raised.
“I personally would like to see it stay forever,” Belle said. “But long enough that we can get the message across that we support Black Lives Matter and for people come and see it and be able to witness it.”
“Long enough that it matters and it makes a difference,” Rosie added.
Board member Patrick Murray thinks this would be the first instance of a K-8 school raising the BLM flag in the country. He referenced the response high schools like Montpelier saw, including death threats from some people around the country, and wondered whether students were prepared to handle such backlash.
“I have been called rude and prude names because of who I am,” said Belle, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community. “It might get to us in the beginning, but I do think that we will overcome it and realize their opinion doesn’t matter. It’s the opinion of people who support us. As long as we believe in ourselves, we can stay strong.”
Board member Andre Roy asked students how the board should handle future requests to raise another flag.
“I feel like if they had a strong argument I’d consider doing it, but I feel we have a strong argument, too,” Rosie said.
“My question to you,” Belle added, “is why can’t we fly both of them?”
No one spoke for or against the proposal at the April 17 meeting, but several parents have weighed when the topic came up at previous meetings.
On February 20, Hiawatha parent Derek Cote urged the board to resist following the trend set by Montpelier and Burlington.
“It’s a highly charged, racially motivated idea, and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen in my son’s school,” he said, latter adding, “All it does is it calls a certain group of people based on race and basically gives everybody else the finger.”
Two weeks later, Essex Town resident Rey Garofano asked the board to consider raising the flag at all EWSD schools and “set us apart as a community that knows that this is important.”
“It’s something that we need all of our children and our whole community to talk and think about to move that conversation forward,” she said.
Flagpoles on school grounds are under the control of the districts, and therefore, the board has the right to decide what flags fly, according to chairwoman Martha Heath.
The three students felt their presentation was well received and commended the board’s questions of what sixth-grader Virginia called “legitimate concerns.”
“I’m very happy they didn’t treat us like little kids and they didn’t baby us,” Belle said.
The students also earned the approval of superintendent Beth Cobb, who put out a statement earlier this year that emphasized the importance of freedom of expression in schools, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the learning environment.
“You make me very proud for coming to the school board with a strong argument and also standing up for what you believe in,” she told the students. “You are the reasons why I am a superintendent.”