ST. ALBANS CITY — As the heavy fog began to rise early Friday morning, dozens of huge, white signs appeared on the lawn of Bellows Free Academy.
Each sign bore a different slogan, with “no H8 @ BFA,” “stand up fight racism,” and “together we stand '' among them. The demonstration was held in support of black, indigenous and people of color after a BFA student was airdropped a meme containing a racial slur while at lunch last month, according to organizers.
“(That) isn't BFA,” said Nicole Schubert, a math interventionist at the school who organized the demonstration. “This doesn't represent us...We’re outraged. We’re heartbroken.”
The racist AirDrop message
Bellows Free Academy senior Kaylee McKenzie was in the middle of lunch Sept. 17 when she received a message via the online app AirDrop.
The message showed a black and white photograph of members of the Ku Klux Klan in uniform, along with the words “3 K’s A DAY KEEPS THE N****** AWAY.” McKenzie is Black.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” Kaylee told the Messenger. “I’ve always dealt with racist people at BFA, just never (directed) at me.”
The AirDrop to Kaylee did not indicate whom the message came from, McKenzie’s mother, Heather, told the Messenger. BFA Principal Brett Blanchard said the district reported the incident to the St. Albans City Police Department to push for an investigation.
Law enforcement can’t pursue it, however, because it’s not a crime, Police Chief Maurice Lamothe said. As a result, he said, it must be a school-initiated investigation.
“It's unfortunate that that happened in the school,” Lamothe said. “We are upset about it, however, there is nothing criminal in what occurred.”
That school investigation concluded Thursday, Sept. 30,Heather McKenzie said.
The district is prepared to reopen the investigation if new evidence comes to light, Blanchard said.
“We take claims of racial harassment extremely seriously and follow the District’s Prevention of Harassment, Hazing, and Bullying of Students Policy,” Blanchard wrote in an email. “While we cannot get into the specifics of this incident due to student confidentiality, the District conducted a thorough investigation of this complaint.”
Staff, students and police officers rally
After staff were informed Tuesday of the incident and subsequent investigation to find out who sent the message, Schubert said many of the teachers -- especially those who knew Kaylee McKenzie -- broke down into tears, Schubert said.
But the teachers banded together and decided they wouldn’t let the incident cast a shadow on their school. Around 100 people showed up early to class on Friday to welcome students and staff in solidarity, with encouraging anti-racist signs along Main Street.
“We wanted to have an outward display of the fact that hate is not welcome here,” said Assistant Principal Sara Kattam, who was also present at the demonstration. “I think sometimes when an incident happens at a school there’s a perception that that is how everyone is at the school. And that's not the case. The overwhelming majority of students and teachers are against hate, in support of our BIPOC community, and it’s incredibly important to show that.”
What started as 40 or so teachers and students commandeering Schubert’s classroom to paint signs after school transformed into a dozens-strong demonstration as the school busses trickled into school on Friday morning.
“I just wanted to do something right away,” Schubert said. “It already felt like complacency.”
Following Tuesday’s staff meeting, Schubert said she sent out a mass email to other teachers asking if they would be on board with a demonstration-type of event.
It worked: teachers and departments rallied together to compile supplies for signs. The art department sent over paint, another teacher sent thick poster markers, and social studies teacher Justin Bedell donated poster boards for the demonstration. Teachers and students got to work making dozens of posters for anyone to hold if they wished to.
Chief Lamothe and Lt. Paul Talley were also present at Friday’s demonstration and said they were both deeply saddened by the incident and eager to stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow public servants in support.
Students were also frequent supporters, Schubert said.
“They’d would come by (on Friday morning) and drop their bag to hold a sign,” Schubert said.
And in the Friday morning rising sun, car horns honked and residents waived out their windows, shouting “thank you” and “keep it up” to the cheering line of sign-holders, determined not to let an incident cripple their community.