EAST MONTPELIER — A student-led proposal to ban “hate symbols” from U-32 Middle and High School provoked mixed opinions during a Wednesday night session.
If asked to pick one word to sum up the latest installment of the school’s “Rolling Up Our Sleeves: Community Dialogue Series” — as all nine participants were — “diversity” wouldn’t have been a bad choice.
The small, but thoughtful group included a mix of students, parents and staff members who expressed widely differing views on the hate symbol policy the student group Seeking Social Justice wants the School Board to adopt.
Though all agreed racism is beyond wrong and symbols like the Confederate flag and swastikas are deeply disturbing, some noted the policy, as drafted, represented a slippery slope that could create or deepen divisions.
Some participants did disagree — if only on the margins — while others, like Owen Myka-Smith, said they were torn.
Myka-Smith, a senior said he worried about hate symbols, but was also worried about “cancel culture” and was struggling to “balance” the two with respect to the proposed policy.
Though he conceded the Confederate flag and swastikas were “on such a different level,” Myka-Smith noted the list of recognized hate symbols is long.
“I’m thinking about what comes after that,” he said.
So was U-32 English teacher Alden Bird.
Bird said he was uneasy about a policy that could arguably prohibit students from wearing a Tom Brady jersey, because the number “12” is one of many numbers on the Anti Defamation League’s list of recognized hate symbols.
Even if it wasn’t, Bird worried that the proposed policy raised potentially thorny questions with respect to the First Amendment.
“You could potentially be banning everything if students came to administrators and said: ‘This offends me,’” he said, citing the case of one student from Florida who was suspended for wearing an LGBTQ T-shirt and another from Texas who was disciplined for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
“That’s the hard thing for me about this,” he said. “You have to enforce (the First Amendment) for your enemy if you want to enforce it for your ally.”
Freedom of speech issues aside, Bird suggested the proposed policy would be “counterproductive” — likely leading to adversarial encounters where students flagged for violations would shut down and no longer be open to learning, or talking.
Bird said a less heavy-handed approach would yield better results.
“The power of relationships might take a little more time, but that student is open for education, for conversation, for relationship building,” he said. “I feel like that’s what changes hearts and minds.”
Bruce Pandya disagreed.
Pandya, a junior who authored the proposed policy and presented it on behalf of the student group, said “taking a stand against hate” was non-negotiable and elevating the convenience of some students over the safety of others is unacceptable.
“The school has to take a proactive stance against hatred,” he said.
The white mother of a black student who she said is routinely subjected to racially based ridicule, was even more emphatic.
“The bare minimum you could do for him is to ban the Confederate flag,” she said. “It’s ludicrous we’re even having this discussion.”
Librarian and student adviser Meg Allison, who said she considered wearing a Tom Brady jersey to the meeting, stressed that context matters, though it is unclear how those determinations would be made by school administrators.
Karen Liebermann, who is both a teacher and a parent, praised Allison’s group for fostering an important conversation, while stopping short of taking a position on the proposed policy.
“I am really supportive of this dialogue and the growing push to address things openly in our really white school, in our really white state,” she said. “I don’t want to shy away from engaging challenging things.”
Myka-Smith’s mother, Jennifer, voiced a similar sentiment, suggesting students with differing views on the subject are too quick to dismiss each other.
“I wish we could find a way to have a ban on hate speech that wouldn’t prevent people from talking,” she said.