On February 25, 2022

Students of color still feel unsafe in schools

By Addie Lentzner, Astrid Young and Lydia Beaulieu

Editor’s note: Lentzner, Young and Beaulieu are members of the Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network.

Schools shape everything in society; there is no doubt that education is the key to societal change. However, schools are so cemented in systems, traditions and bureaucracy, which makes that change an incredibly slow and painful process. Schools should be places where all students can flourish, and where everybody has equal opportunity and access to resources. Across Vermont and across the nation, we are seeing how we haven’t yet reached that reality. Here are just a few stories from Vermont schools that emphasize the climate of injustice and racial inequity that exists:

A Black Lives Matter flier, hung by Stowe High School’s Racial Equity Alliance (REACH), was recently vandalized. The “Black” was folded over, replaced with a sticky note that read “All,”making the flier read “All Lives Matter,” a common and dehumanizing slogan used to undermine Black empowerment movements. After the flier was fixed, it was vandalized a second time within the same week; The “Black” was completely torn off, leaving the sign only reading “Lives Matter.” Following the vandalism, hate spread on social media, applauding the act of vandalism and perpetuating the ideology of “All Lives Matter.” The act of harm against the Black Lives Matter flier symbolized something larger for many students, especially those a part of the Racial Equity Alliance who hung the sign. It showed that ignorance and hate still thrive in our school community and students of color are continuously made to feel unsafe. As a result, REACH had to move the bulletin board to a location with cameras and temporarily take down the fliers until the board could be rehung.

The response to these acts of vandalism included a school-wide assembly and discussions about dehumanizing language and racism in schools. This activity brought to light expressions of ignorance already stewing among students, and it also showed the school’s lack of experience when it comes to crisis management for acts of racially motivated vandalism. Because of the school’s shockingly high white population, many students are able to ignore racial inequity and ignorance at their leisure. This has the power to form a dangerous environment that feeds into and supports harmful racial rhetoric, such as the vandalism REACH was targeted with. While there has been outpouring support for the Racial Alliance by many students, there is a systemic issue of ignorance present at the high school that can only be addressed through systemic educational practices that reinforce and highlight perspectives of color.

In the past month, the boys’ bathroom at Milton High School was vandalized with hate speech. These messages ranged from homophobic and racist slurs to a chart comparing and objectifying female body parts. This event has reverberated throughout Milton high school’s community and left many feeling angry and discouraged, but not surprised. The majority of students I interviewed contend that acts of hate have been prevalent throughout the school year: slurs float throughout the hallways, confederate flag sweatshirts are proudly paraded from classroom to classroom, and toxic masculinity seems to be as rampant as it’s ever been. You might be wondering, what was the punishment? At this point in time, administrative action against individual students has not been publicized. Nevertheless, teachers and faculty have created restorative spaces for conversations and questions surrounding the incident.

Even after engaging in restorative circles many students still seek closure. When asked if they thought the school handled the incident conducively, opinions were split. One student argues on behalf of the school administration, claiming that even though past incidents were not dealt with accordingly, this time around school administrators are working to do better. In contrast, another interviewee states that school officials are “hypocrites that only care when it suits their public image.” This notion that school administrators cherry-pick which events to handle and which ones to let slide anger many community members, especially those whom the oppressive language directly harms.

Although there is no justification for white supremacist behavior, there are reasons why it was able to escalate. Of the peers I spoke with, all agreed that the culture among the student body is a principle factor in why racist, homophobic and sexist rhetoric was able to extend past hallway voices and into permanent marker. One student claims that there are three realms of thought that fuel the culture — the overt perpetrators that support oppressive behavior; on the opposite side, there are minds that actively work to disrupt systematic oppression; then, there is the majority who fall somewhere in between, all sharing an ambiguous stance.

This spectrum is not secluded to the vandalism incident in the boys’ bathroom nor is it unique to Milton High School. Nonetheless, to truly dismantle expressions of hate, widespread acknowledgment of the problem is not enough — everyone, whether that be educators or students, needs to be committed to the work.

These incidents are not isolated; the reason we have shared these incidents together is to show how this is a system that spans counties and towns and high schools. Vermont is a part of a national system. Just because we have progressive legislation doesn’t mean we are exempt or immune from a problem. The bottom line is that students of color are still made to feel unsafe at school, and we need change. People who don’t experience this injustice directly have the blissful opportunity to ignore it. We need to face this problem, engage in uncomfortable conversations, and work together to change the system.

Here is one way that you can get involved in shaking up the status quo. The Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network is holding a Student Affinity Space. One set of meetings will be a multicultural affinity space where we would hold open discussions about racism and social justice. The second set of meetings will be a safe, education-focused space for students involved in racist incidents at their school. We want to stress that these meetings would be non-judgmental for students with the hope and focus of educating them as to why what they did was harmful.

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