Hundreds attend MHS Black Lives Matter flag-raising

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Montpelier High School senior Noel Riby-Williams prepares to raise the Black Lives Matter flag Thursday at the school. Hundreds of students, community members, police and lawmakers attended the ceremony marking the start of Black History Month.

MONTPELIER – The raising of the Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School Thursday morning became a rallying cry for students at schools nationwide to do so, too.  Several hundred people — students, parents, community members — witnessed the event. Montpelier's is believed to be the first public school in the nation to raise the BLM flag. The decision last month by school officials to allow students to raise the flag during Black History Month in February brought a wave of support and a social media backlash from alt-right and other groups who claim the BLM movement advocates violence against police. However, there were no signs of protest on Thursday.   But there was strong security, with a police cruiser parked at the entrance to the school and a snow plow blocking access to the school parking lot, where the crowd of students and supporters were gathered around the school flag pole outside the front entrance. Memories of a shooting two weeks ago by nine police officers of alleged armed bank robber and former MHS student Nathan Giffin on the school's athletic grounds also were still fresh.   Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos said he was relieved there were no incidents at the flag-raising. "It was just a very proud moment in the history of Montpelier High School, and I'm proud of this community," Facos said.   Speaking before the event, MHS senior Joelyn Mensah, one of the principal organizers of the event and a member of the school's Racial Justice Alliance movement, said she hoped the event would set an example and be the precedent for other schools to stand up for racial justice in education.   "What I hope from this ceremony is that it starts a precedent for other schools, local and in the U.S. and to better their curriculum for black students," Mensah said.   The event began around 9:30 a.m. with students filing out of the school and gathering in groups on the parking lot near the flag pole. The assembled then heard the Nina Simone song, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," sung by Arethra Franklin. It was followed by more speeches by students dressed in black long-sleeved shirts bearing the slogans "Black Lives Matter" and "Racial Justice Alliance" on them. Other students and members of the public held BLM banners and other homemade banners.   During the introduction of the event to the public and media, Mensah said she had been told by many people that she was "very brave" for her active role in raising the BLM flag at the school. "But I would also like to recognize that it also takes a community that is ready to listen to us and takes up the fight, and to take action to bring change," Mensah said.   She went onto to catalog indignities and insults that students of color experience in society — and in school.   "Black students, as a whole, are pretty much robbed of a thorough education," Mensah said. "We don't get to go to school learning about ourselves. We ... are fed a whitewashed curriculum that is not fully representative of American history."   "Many people have asked why we're raising the (BLM) flag today," Mensah said. "The reason goes back to why people have flags in the first place. People choose their flags because they want to be represented and want to be seen, and we students do not feel like we are represented or seen in our education, and we're here to raise the flag and we want to be seen and we will demand to be represented in our education."   School Principal Michael McRaith admitted to enjoying all the benefits and privileges of being white, but pledged to do his best to ensuring a welcome and inclusive school environment for all.  "With your help, I'm learning to better understand my own privilege and the important role I play in the responsibility of ensuring safety, opportunities and justice for those who do not share any or all those privileges," he said.   Others who McRaith thanked for their support and attendance at the event included Montpelier School Board members, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, members of the legislature, friends, family and community, as well as local and state police officers. "We thank you for your friendship and protection," McRaith said.   "Thank you for understanding that the decision to fly a Black Lives Matter flag this month at Montpelier High School is not anti-police; it is anti-bias," McRaith added. "Thank you for understanding that we reject any purported violence associated with Black Lives Matter and embrace the message of equity for all."   There was silence as the American flag was lowered and the BLM flag was attached before both were raised together by students taking turns. The crowd cheered.  Sophomore Maryann Songhurst closed the student participation of the event with a rallying cry to other schools.   "We want you to look at the Montpelier High School's Black Lives Matter flag as the continuation of action for educational justice for black students in our community today and going forward into the future," Songhurst said. "This flag is a statement of support for black students in every school in this country and a rallying call for real action to be taken against institutional racism and injustice."   Fellow sophomore Mandy Abu Aziz added: "I hope that no matter who you are, every time you walk into this school you can glance at the flag and know that the people in this school know your value and care about you and that you're not alone in the fight for social justice. We hope that as you move forward through the rest of your day and the rest of your life, you will always remember this moment in your hearts. Have a wonderful day, and thank you for attending this monumental event."   Secretary Holcombe paid tribute to the student-led campaign.   "I want to commend the students, because one of the most important roles of the schools is to help students figure out how to participate in democracy," Holcombe said. "What I appreciate is the fact that they're working to make sure that when we talk about liberty and justice, we're really talking about liberty and justice for all.    "This is fundamentally American in terms of how it's related to free speech. This isn't about anti-police, it's about anti-bias in trying to make sure that all students are systematically valued, supported and … have access to opportunities," Holcombe said. Montpelier Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ricca praised students and acknowledged controversy around the BLM movement.   "I know that not everyone agrees with the notion of a Black Lives Matter flag," Ricca said. "I feel very proud that from the beginning, our message has been anti-violence, love and courage. We look at this flag as anti-bias across the spectrum: ability, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation. We continue to hope to have peaceful, thoughtful dialogue on this issue."   School board Chairwoman Michele Braun said she was happy with the success of the event.   "I think it went really well," Braun said. "I was really impressed with the students' speeches. It was a lovely crowd, very respectful. It's very consistent with the overwhelming messages of support we've received from the community."  City Manager Bill Fraser, whose son attends the high school, also praised students and the event. "It was a wonderful day. I'm really proud of the students, proud of the school, proud of the city," Fraser said.   stephen.mills@timesargus.com   

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