ACSD board eyes policy after students seek BLM flag

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District Board on Aug. 23 will decide whether to entertain requests to fly flags on district property that impart private messaging — such as the Black Lives Matter banner.

It’s a topic that touches upon free speech, equity and patriotism, and it’s eliciting emotionally charged debate throughout the country — including the ACSD community.

The board’s upcoming discussion and decision will be watched with particular interest by members of the Student Coalition On Human Rights (SCOHR), which last year requested that a BLM flag be flown at Middlebury Union High School. School officials at the time said they couldn’t properly evaluate SCOHR’s request without a district flag policy.

“We know the potential controversy, and we want to do it right,” said ACSD Policy Committee Chair Mary Gill.

“We feel very strongly we want to bring back to the students a message that we are taking this very seriously, and we want to support them.”

The ACSD board took an initial stab at a flag policy at its Aug. 9 meeting, using the Colchester School District’s version as a template. The proposed policy stipulates that district flag poles are a forum of government speech, as opposed to private speech by students and community members, though the board may OK the raising of a requested private-speech flag if it meets certain criteria, including that it can’s contain libelous, hateful, vulgar or profane messaging.

Approved flags would be given a three-month run, after which advocates would need to apply for an extension, the proposed policy states.

After an hour-long discussion on Aug. 9, individual ACSD board members appeared to rally behind three different ways to handle private-speech flag requests:

•  Adopt the Colchester policy.

•  Limit the primary flag pole on ACSD school campuses for the raising of only three flags: Those of the U.S., Vermont and the International Baccalaureate program. Other flag requests would be vetted through the Colchester policy and those that pass muster would be allowed to fly on a secondary flag pole on campus or in another spot on school property.

•  As an alternative (or in addition to) flag requests, ask the ACSD board to take a stand on the cause the applicant is seeking to promote visually.

Based on their comments on Aug. 9, a majority of the board isn’t keen on adorning the main flag pole at district schools with anything other than the U.S., state and IB banners.

“I feel the flag pole is … a form of government speech, of district speech, and that we’re not in a position to promote private speech — one type, over another,” board member Victoria Jette said.

Member James “Chip” Malcolm agreed.

“This is an extremely slippery slope on our flag pole,” Malcolm said.

Mary Cullinane, chair of the ACSD board, said she personally believes the board could endorse a cause, such as BLM, but added, “I just don’t think the flag is the appropriate way to do that. I honor and respect the students who want that as the option, but there are other ways we can do that. It is a healthy dialogue for them to understand that.”

The ACSD board in 2018 approved a “student freedom of expression in school sponsored media” that speaks to student-produced publications and messaging, but it doesn’t touch on flags. 

On the statewide level, bill H.92 — currently in the House Education Committee — seeks to “prohibit flags other than the U.S. flag and state of Vermont flag from being flown on public school property in Vermont.”

Cullinane said she’s discussed the BLM flag request with students, who’ve been made aware of the potential civil liability the district could face if the flying of a private-message flag were challenged in court.

But some board members argued the board shouldn’t shy away from the topic because of concerns the ACSD could be dragged into court.

“I just don’t want us to lose the point that we have a group of students that cares so much, and they’ve done so much research, and they want us to take the discussion to another level,” said board member Lindsey Hescock. “And I don’t want to shirk our responsibility because we’re afraid of liability that some group is going to sue us.”

Board member Jen Nuceder said rather than a lawsuit, she’s concerned about the precedent the district would set by flying a private-speech flag.

“I’m concerned if we allow another flag to be there, we may be treading in a territory we may not be aware of and may not be able to come back from without making a big mistake,” she said. “So I’d like to be very careful about the decision and make sure we’re thinking all the way through, whatever decision we make.”

Here’s how other area school districts have fielded flag requests:

•  The Mount Abraham Unified School District’s (MAUSD) Community Council, in conjunction with the administration, “can create procedures for the inner workings of our school and how we function, the raising of the flag falls under this,” according to Mt. Abraham Union High School Principal Shannon Warden. But she added, “Only the school board can set policy for our school, and there isn’t one around flags.”

The MAUSD Community Council approved a request from the Mt. Abe Student Activism (MASA) group to fly the BLM flag for 30 days last fall, and in January agreed to allow the flag to permanently fly on campus. MASA members collected more than 600 signatures from school and community members in support of their flag request.

•  Addison Northwest School District.

“We don’t have a specific ‘flag policy” but we do have a ‘student self-expression policy’ that could potentially be referenced if faced with opposition regarding flying the BLM flag,” said ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule. That policy allows “limited distribution of non-school sponsored literature on school grounds or at school events by students.”

The distributed material can’t, among other things, be obscene, vulgar, or profane, or libelous.

The ANWSD also has an “equity policy.”

The Independent reached out to SCOHR leaders to get their take on the ACSD board’s effort to craft a flag policy. Members Zoë Noble and Ivy Doran said through an email response they’re happy the board is crafting a policy, and believe it’s “very important to show our support for marginalized communities and protest against the ongoing racial injustice in our country.”

 But SCOHR, according to Noble and Doran, is disappointed the proposed flag policy envisions a three-month cap on the flying of private-speech flags.

“We feel that flying the BLM flag temporarily sends the message that our support is temporary as well, which it is not and should not be,” Noble and Doran said. “We hope that the board will reconsider this section of the policy but we appreciate their willingness to work with us throughout this process.”

Flying the BLM flag, according to SCOHR leaders, would be in keeping with what they believe are the district’s core beliefs: “to provide welcoming and safe classrooms in order to promote purposeful teaching and learning. Displaying the flag welcomes conversations that are essential in order to have a greater understanding of the racial inequity that persists throughout our society.”

Gill said she hopes the board provides a tangible way for students to express their concerns and values.

“I understand the question about the official flag pole, but there needs to be some way we acknowledge what the students are saying to us, that we support what they’re saying, and we are brave enough to show everyone else in the community that we’re standing behind out students,” she said.

“(A public statement) is not enough.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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