Hundreds attend MHS Black Lives Matter flag-raising

Montpelier High School senior Noel Riby-Williams prepares to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at the school in February.

MONTPELIER — Friday will mark one year since Montpelier High School raised the Black Lives Matter flag.

A private ceremony with faculty, staff, students and members of the students’ Racial Justice Alliance that first proposed flying the flag is scheduled, touching off a month of activities to celebrate Black History Month in February.

On Feb. 1, 2018, MHS became the first public school in the nation to fly the BLM flag in response to claims by students of color about systemic racism in the school system. It attracted national and international media attention, as well as strong social media response, both positive and negative.

Other schools in Vermont — including U-32 Middle and High School, Burlington High School, Essex High School and Brattleboro middle and high schools — followed suit by flying the flag. South Burlington High School will fly the BLM flag for the first time Friday.

During the past year, MHS and Racial Justice Alliance have led a comprehensive effort to support racial harmony in education across the curriculum and through student activism and community events.

“There’s been a lot of reflection for the whole community, and also reflecting on what have we learned, what steps have we taken to do better by our historically marginalized students and what more do we need to do to continue momentum,” said Principal Mike McRaith.

McRaith said steps were made to include the needs of students of color in the curriculum, foster empathy among students, encourage conversations about privilege and bias, introduce new books on racial diversity and invite speakers to address students on racial equality.

Other events included A Day of Silence, a daylong vow of silence recognizing the symbolic silencing of LGBTQ students through bullying and harassment. Professional development programs were designed to help faculty look at equity in education. During February, there will be classes with guest speakers highlighting people of color that have contributed significantly in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

“We’ll continue to do professional development to make sure we are conscious and conscientious of privilege and implicit biases, and continue to grow our own skills for cultural competency, and also interrupt micro-aggressions (between students),” McRaith said. “We use some of the curriculum from the Southern Poverty Law Center, teaching tolerance, which has a lot of good resources for teachers.

“Myself and a few students have also presented at a few conferences, telling the story of the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag,” McRaith said, adding that he attended the raising of the BLM flag at Burlington High School and helped advise South Burlington High School on its decision to raise the flag.

McRaith also praised the work of Joelyn Mensah, a 2018 graduate who led the Racial Justice Alliance request to the School Board to raise the BLM flag.

“She was very brave, very wise and very effective,” McRaith said.

McRaith noted there had been a significant change in the school system as a result of raising racism as an issue for students.

“I think there’s an increased awareness in our whole community of the damage that can do, of the gravity of it,” McRaith said. “We’re a small school in a small community and we were very interested in being able to have respectful dialogue and hear each other.”

McRaith said efforts at encouraging racial harmony in education at the high school included working with the leadership of Main Street Middle School to educate students about the need to be empathetic and inclusive of people of color when they reach the high school.

“It’s a goal of ours to use restorative practices on a regular basis at Montpelier High School,” McRaith said.

A calendar of events through February celebrating Black History Month begins Friday night with a Music of Color Dance at the high school, featuring artists of color. Throughout the month there will be a series of TED Talks addressing racism, including a discussion about Peggy McIntosh’s book, “The Unpacking of the Invisible Knapsack,” which addresses white privilege, and a series of student workshops about systemic racism in science. The school will also feature an art exhibit, “I Am VT Too,” with pictures of people holding message boards with their personal reflections on racial harmony.

Former Bennington representative Kiah Morris, who resigned last year as the only black female legislator in the State House after racial remarks and threats, will deliver a keynote speech to students at MHS on Feb. 22.

stephen.mills

@timesargus.com

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