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ACSD fails to pass flag policy

MIDDLEBURY — The searing national debate over what kinds of flags should be permitted to fly on government flagpoles continues to play out in Middlebury, where the Addison Central School District board on Monday evening couldn’t agree on a policy direction after 80 minutes of impassioned discussion.

The board finished deadlocked, 6-6, on a proposed policy that would have given school officials the power to vet individual flag proposals for the main flagpole that fronts Middlebury Union High School’s main entrance off Charles Avenue. A tie vote meant the motion failed; board member Lindsey Hescock wasn’t there to break the tie.

The policy would have also applied to other schools within the seven-town district.

With two lengthy flag debates now in their rearview mirror, ACSD board Chair Mary Cullinane is asking individual members to email their respective flag solutions to the district’s Policy Committee for a future proposal to vote on.

Efforts to draft a flag policy are being driven by MUHS’s Student Coalition On Human Rights (SCOHR), which last year requested a Black Lives Matter flag be flown in front of the school. School officials at the time said they couldn’t properly evaluate SCOHR’s request without a district flag policy.

And that assignment is proving easier said than done. The ACSD board spent more than an hour debating the issue at its Aug. 9 meeting — using the Colchester School District’s flag policy as a template — and grinded through a similar marathon session this past Monday.

Current Vermont rules require schools to maintain a flagpole that must fly the U.S. flag, with the option of also raising the state flag. Around 20 school districts — including neighboring Mount Abraham Unified School District — have elected to add other flags to the mix, such as the BLM banner, according to ACSD Policy Committee Chair Mary Gill.

“Are we going to continue looking at other avenues for petitioners to come to us and say we’d like to put a particular flag on the district flagpole, or are we going to stick with what’s in statute now, which is the U.S. flag, the state of Vermont flag, and a ‘flag of an institutional significance?’” Gill said, in framing the issue.

District leaders are currently divided into two different camps: one that believes ACSD officials should consider students’ flag proposals as a matter of principal, regardless of potential legal challenges; and another that subscribes to the notion the main flagpole should only bear governmental/scholastic messaging — as in the U.S., Vermont and International Baccalaureate flags — and that flying flags such a BLM would only politicize the causes the sponsors are seeking to promote.

“As soon as we put up a flag on the flagpole — whatever flag it is — it politicizes it, and education shouldn’t be politicized,” board member Victoria Jette said. “If we really want to show what we stand for … then we back it up with policies and procedures and professional development around those things. How do we offer equal access and opportunity to all of these kids and how do we make every one of them welcome in our building and as part of the community? When you put it on a flag and it becomes political, and then you have sides; you don’t have a community coming together to do those things to reach one goal.”

Member Suzanne Buck agreed.

“We have to honor student voices, but we can’t politicize an educational setting,” she said.

Member Jen Nuceder voiced concern a new flag policy could unintentionally provide loopholes that could pave the way for flags that might be hurtful to some people.

“I’m really concerned that we’re going to do the wrong thing, that somebody is going to get hurt someday by what we do, while we’re all very well-intentioned and want to do the right thing here,” she said.

Narges Anzali, student representative to the ACSD board and an award-winning writer on issues pertaining to Islamophobia, offered her take on the issue.

“I understand the controversy, because I live the controversy, because I’m in a school where I have to interact with all of my peers whether or not I necessarily agree with where their politics are in relation to mine,” she said. “But I also have to say that I, as a student of color in a predominantly white institution, I have to say that seeing a flag — because it’s the symbol of something that people support — it’s a very important thing.”

Having the school fly a flag advocating equality, Anzali said, is “a symbol that that authority agrees with us and wants to uplift this cause.”

She was asked if she thought students could settle for a secondary flagpole on which to fly messaging important to them.

“I think they would certainly be disappointed,” she said. “Their original objective was to reach the state flagpole.”

Board member Betty Kafumbe, also a person of color, said the visual impact of a flag can’t be underestimated.

“When you put the flag up, it’s a reminder to students, teachers or community members who are coming into the school every day or walking by, that Black lives do matter, or whatever (the particular flag represents),” she said.

“We want (the flag) to be a reflection for what we can work toward, something we want to achieve in the district.”

Board member Mary Heather Noble said a flag shouldn’t be construed as merely a political statement.

“It’s really about this group of students who — let’s face it —  don’t feel represented by the current U.S. flag or Vermont flag,” she said.

She urged fellow board members to entertain student flag requests.

“I feel a little bit worried about ACSD declaring the flagpole as this sacred thing and then backing away and not having the courage to make a statement or stand behind what our students are clearly, repeatedly asking us as leaders to do,” she said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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