ST. ALBANS — As students poured out of Bellows Free Academy at the end of the school day Wednesday, protesters on the street corner held signs and chanted “Black youth matter! Black youth matter!”
The cold, rainy day did not prevent Shela Linton, a field organizer for Vermont Worker’s Center, from leading the “fight against racism and advocate for racial justice in our Vermont schools,” according to her.
Although the advocate for Black Lives Matter of Vermont temporarily struggled to get 15 or so protesters organized for the 2:30 start time, Linton’s message soon came across very clearly.
Born in Brattleboro, she spoke of personal experiences with racism and made allegations against teachers and administration of verbal and physical abuse, during her time in school.
“I know all too intimately what it is like to be a person of color and navigate and survive the brutal realities of the school system here in Vermont,” Linton said. ““We would systematically be denied, forgotten and thrown away.”
As a mother of two and speaker against bullying and harassment, Linton wants the system to be better for her children. “This is not a people-of-color problem,” Linton said. “When one of us isn’t safe, we all aren’t safe.”
Many students leaving the high school stopped to watch and listen as Ebony Nyoni, one of the protest’s organizers, ignited the crowd and shouted, “Stop racism at BFA! Stop racism at BFA!”
Alyssa Chen, of Burlington, explained why Black Lives Matter chose a school in St. Albans for the protest. Chen said the group wanted to bring attention to rural areas, because she said, racial harassment happens all across the state, not just in Chittenden County.
Some students listened passively; reading the “Unite Against Racism in Vermont Schools” pamphlets Chen handed out, but remaining across the street on school grounds avoiding further interaction.
Others approached the protesters with energy, shouting their support and grabbing a poster to hold up. Later, two or three students could be seen taking selfies along with the posters.
People driving by beeped their horns and shouted out their car windows, “Black lives matter!” One driver, however, drowned out the protesters’ calls for action by blaring his truck’s horn for almost a minute. [See related story.]
Linton continued the protest with another personal testimony of unchecked racism in Vermont schools. It came from Barbara Ann Miller of Morrisville, whose grandson was suspended 108 times in 7th grade and 86 times in 8th grade, according to the pamphlet.
“Because of his disability, he would get himself in trouble,” Miller wrote. “During many IEP (Individual Education Program) meetings, we would agree to do things one way and then after the meetings something was done a different way.”
In the Vermont Legal Aid report “Kicked Out!”, findings showed that African-American and Native American students were two or three times more likely than white students to be suspended.
“The report’s goal was to raise awareness and recommend policy changes,” author Jay Diaz said. “Out of the report came an organization, Vermont Dignity in Schools coalition, which is headed up by Vermont Legal Aid.”
“It’s seeking concrete policy changes and regulatory changes to physical discipline and to make suspension and expulsion an absolute last resort,” Diaz continued.
“We’re here to make systematic change,” Chen called out in the direction of BFA. “[We] call to end suspension and expulsion by giving resources and training to help schools and teachers keep kids in school.”
“Vermont has made some steps and asked schools to voluntarily adopt Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS),” Diaz, staff attorney and public advocate for American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said. “However we are behind other parts of the country in terms of systemically attacking this issue.”
Schools in Oakland, Calif., were successful in reducing suspensions by more than half over a three-year period, according to a school district report, through the use of a restorative justice approach.
The “Kicked Out! Unfair and Unequal Student Discipline in Vermont’s Public Schools” report says there are harsh long-term consequences for suspension and expulsion, including students dropping out-of-school, living in poverty or ending up in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
The school-to-prison idea stems from the statistic that 90 percent of Vermont’s inmates under 22-years-old were high school dropouts prior to incarceration, according to a 2008 Vermont Department of Corrections study.
When schools used positive behavior intervention instead, Vermont PBIS found achievement scores rose and trips to the principal’s office decreased.
The protesters standing outside and BFA principal, Chris Mosca, both quoted statistics from Diaz’s report.
“We’re using his research,” Mosca said. “We’re trying to get it in front of our staff.”
“Unless it’s really a threat to people’s safety, we’re going to try and move away from out of school suspension,” Mosca said. “Maybe remove them from a classroom but not suspend them.”
“If there’s research that says this is how typical suspensions are falling and it’s having negative consequences, particularly for the most vulnerable,” Mosca said, “then I need to be better at making sure that’s not something we fall into.”
Outside on the street corner of South Main St., protesters ended their message in song. Quoting Luke Nephew’s 2014 civil rights song, they sang, “I can hear my neighbor crying, I can’t breathe. Now I’m in the struggle and I can’t leave. Calling out the violence of school bullies. We ain’t gonna stop, till people are free.”