It’s an interesting state of affairs when “doing the right thing” turns into an act of courage. White supremacists have leveled threats against school officials in Montpelier for a decision to raise a Black Lives Matter flag in the high school parking lot as part of Black History Month, which starts today. Montpelier Public Schools announced Jan. 17 that the high school would fly the flag after a year of school officials working with the student-led Racial Justice Alliance. The student group says Vermont has a long history of being at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and the decision to fly the flag builds on that legacy. The school board’s decision that night was unanimous. In the days since, threats have been made to the safety of Montpelier school and public officials, as well as “white residents” living in Montpelier. Some individuals have complained the Black Lives Matters flag represents an anti-police sentiment. And many other condemnations have been part of an ugly backlash by people who — by all accounts — seem to represent white supremacists and groups that regularly engage in hate speech. Social media has been electrified by the debate, elevating the local controversy onto the national stage. In response, an aggressive letter-writing and email campaign has been made locally to show widespread support for the student group, school administration, Superintendent Brian Ricca and the school commissioners. Most of the supporters say they are grateful for the effort toward public awareness of systemic racism, school officials have said. But the critics are finding their own platforms, pointing to Black Lives Matter as their particular target. White supremacist groups nationwide have been flooding chat rooms about the decision, including members of Stormfront, a forum site started by the Ku Klux Klan. Stormfront’s members are considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be a hate group. One Vermont lawmaker, Rep. Thomas Terenzini, a Republican from Rutland, offered up his own criticism, stating that the decision was “a bad example,” and adding, “I don’t see myself as being a bigot or prejudiced, but I just don’t think that Black Lives Matter is a national organization to look up (to).” Ricca acknowledged at the time of the vote that some people would disagree with the decision, but said it’s important for the community to engage this conversation thoughtfully — even in the face of critics. “(W)elcome those voices into a constructive and peaceful dialogue, in the hopes of deepening our shared understanding of race and privilege in our education system and broader community.” For sure, the conversations need to happen, and especially in the second-whitest state in the nation, after Maine. Critics of Montpelier Public Schools are entitled to their opinions, but they are misguided. The decision is part of a larger campaign to promote social justice causes. And while the school is not literally “raising a flag” on issues like climate change, poverty, gender fluidity and social justice, it is integrated into discussions, and students are being challenged to think about the world in which they live — not just idly watching it go by. These issues are real, they affect our community, and as such need to be treated with the respect and attention required for better understanding, awareness and critical thinking. Montpelier should be proud it has a school system that provides an education that includes conversations about topics such as systemic racism and privilege. That kind of mindfulness offers lifelong lessons in some very formative years. The Racial Justice Alliance should be commended for pushing its cause and standing up at a time when the nation’s divide is clearer than it has been since the U.S. Civil War. It is bold. And school officials should be commended and celebrated for educating us all. There is great potential for additional lessons and discussion, which that vote was undoubtedly intended to provoke. In the meantime, we all need to be grateful that we can continually muster courage to stand up for our inalienable rights, and fight to do the right things.

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