By Brooke Geery
The Black Lives Matter flag with a rainbow Pride stripe has retaken its place under the American flag and Vermont state flag in front of Mill River Union High School (MRU) in Clarendon. On Monday, Sept. 7, the flag was initially raised for the first of a 90-day run at the request of class of 2021 student Reese Eldert-Moore. The action was approved by the School Board in an 8-3 vote in June. However, on the morning of Sept. 8, the rope securing it to the pole had been cut and the flag was taken.
Superintendent David Younce has kept community members up to date on the Mill River website, while a donation from a community member enabled the flag to be re-raised around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
“Thanks to the actions of a handful of community volunteers, a replacement flag was provided to the district this afternoon,” Younce wrote.
It will fly for the remaining 89 days.
To prevent another incident of vandalism, the flag will be removed nightly by a MRU facilities member. Mill River’s resource officer is in the midst of an investigation, which has revealed that two individuals were involved; Younce declined to comment further due to the ongoing nature of the investigation. In his initial statement, however, he expressed his dismay.
“The flag was raised to communicate the district’s support for its students, especially those who may feel marginalized or unseen,” Younce wrote. “The individual or individuals who chose to remove the flag clearly delivered the exact opposite message to our students and community. We are saddened that this occurred. Regardless of the actions … we in the MRUUSD are fully committed to supporting those who are personally and negatively affected by this action and will continue to do so. It is my hope that the MRUUSD community embraces this opportunity to show love, support, and kindness to each other as we move forward.”
Members of the Mill River community reacted with a mix of outrage and a total lack of surprise, given the continued protests of a vocal minority, including a group of four parents of former Mill River students, who showed up to protest at the initial flag raising ceremony, despite the event being closed to the public.
The decision has been a highly-contested topic of discussion at school board meetings since the initial student request was approved, with vocal opponents including Rep. Arthur Peterson, R-Clarendon, who’s repeatedly claimed such diversity and inclusion initiatives have led to a decline in enrollment at Mill River.
However, it seems most Mill River parents and students do support the effort.
John McKenna of Clarendon, whose children currently attend Mill River, went further, expressing a desire to see the perpetrators brought to justice. “We need to pressure the administration and the board to find out who did this (there are cameras) and publicly, swiftly and severely punish those responsible. There should be criminal charges with a hate crime enhancement filed,” he said.
Johnathan Gibson of Shrewsbury has also been on the pro-flag side of the agreement and noted a broader trend of the difficulties all school boards currently face.
“These hateful actions are occurring around the country — frequently and intentionally directed at school boards. We must ask the Scott Administration and the State Police for their full support in confronting and responding to this incident. It’s not right that those on our school board and administration who are working so hard FOR education have to deal with all these politically-driven attacks — and now criminal actions — AGAINST their effort to provide a safe and inclusive place for learning.”
As for Peterson, he penned a letter to the Rutland Herald editor, reminding opponents that their efforts had prevented the flag from being a permanent fixture, while asking his constituents to respect the law.
“I know there are very strong feelings in our communities about this issue. There may be some who are motivated to do the wrong thing with respect to the flag and school property. I am asking everyone to refrain from any unlawful or unruly actions… There will be many opportunities to make the changes necessary regarding district leadership to ensure that something like this not happen again. We all need to work together in the future to make sure this change happens.”
Younce told the Mountain Times that the district will continue to honor its policy and student requests. School resource officer Deputy Joe Hoffman is actively investigating the matter and Younce said he would inform the community when/if the investigation reaches its conclusion, at which time, the board district will act appropriately.
“As a school district we do consider the act of theft of the flag and damage to the flagpole to be a crime. If those involved are adults, that would be resolved through the legal system. If those involved are students, that might be resolved through both the legal system and the school’s disciplinary system. With regards to school discipline, without full context it would not be appropriate for me to theorize on what those outcomes might be.”