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MUMS institutes ban on flag-related attire

“We believe that the exchange of ideas, even when we strongly disagree, is an important part of education in a democracy. Our teachers and staff will continue to encourage students to engage in thoughtful, respectful and ordered debate on issues of public concern.”

— MUMS Principal Michael Dudek

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Union Middle School on Monday implemented a ban on all flag-related attire, one of several new strategies aimed at addressing student behavior issues that have made for turbulent times at MUMS since the beginning of this academic year.

Michael Dudek, principal of MUMS, announced the new policy as part of an email communiqué sent to the school community during the evening of Sunday, Nov. 28.

“Flags of any kind will not be allowed as attire within the MUMS building,” reads the email, also signed by Addison Central School District Superintendent Peter Burrows. “Students have important free speech rights that are protected within the school environment … however the use of flags has disrupted learning and has no useful place as attire.”

During an email exchange with the Independent, Dudek explained the reasoning behind the flag-attire ban.

“After consideration of the recent disruptions caused by students wearing flags on their clothing while at school, we have concluded that the best approach is to eliminate flag wearing. From today forward, we will prohibit all students from wearing or displaying any flags at school or during school events. This rule comes in response to a number of significant disruptions arising from flag wearing. Although we support free speech and the right of students to reasonably express themselves, we also have a duty to limit the disruption to the learning environment. The new rule applies to all flags, no matter the political or other position supported.”

He stressed students will still be allowed express themselves

“We continue to value and support free speech for our students,” he said. “We believe that the exchange of ideas, even when we strongly disagree, is an important part of education in a democracy. Our teachers and staff will continue to encourage students to engage in thoughtful, respectful and ordered debate on issues of public concern.”

Flags have been a hot-button topic with the ACSD this year.

The ACSD board on Oct. 11 endorsed a new policy that allows the flying — for a limited time — of banners other than just the U.S. and Vermont flags on the primary flagpole at the entrance of any ACSD school. This new policy then allowed the ACSD board, at the same meeting, to unanimously approve a longstanding student request for the Black Lives Matter flag to fly in front of Middlebury Union High School for the balance of this academic year.

MUMS — which in August expanded to include sixth-graders — has been in the spotlight of late for unruly student behavior that has tested educators’ patience and has on a few occasions required visits from Middlebury police.

In mid-October substitute teacher Fawnda Buttolph presented the ACSD board with a graphic account of unruly students posing a major challenge to a shorthanded, shell-shocked staff at MUMS. She painted a picture of hallways filled with yelling and foul language, students refusing to do what they’re told, and instances of school administrators having to help remove the most problematic children from classrooms.

Dudek, in concert with ACSD officials, has been crafting a comprehensive plan to get MUMS students more compliant and reacclimated to the school setting after months of remote learning due to COVID-19. It’s an effort that has resulted in, among other things, the hiring of additional staff — including paraprofessionals, two behavior interventionists, a special educator, and a “general education” teacher to help implement new programming for students with behavioral issues.

MUMS has also created a task force to review how the school currently addresses student behavior cases, and recommend potential changes.

In his latest email, Dudek said Burrows, Assistant Superintendent Caitlin Steele and Director of Equity and Student Services Nicole Carter have begun “important work to assess and address the culture and structural challenges at MUMS.” The trio, he said, recently spent an entire day meeting with all MUMS teachers to “fully understand the scope of the challenges within the building and to listen to their ideas for solutions.” Officials have spent the past week identifying what Dudek said was a range of solutions to implement during the coming weeks.

Looking ahead, plans call for Dudek and Burrows to host weekly Friday Zoom meetings (7:30-8:10 a.m.) in December for parents and caregivers, allowing constituents to ask questions and connect with school administrators.

Dudek issued a reminder that hate speech won’t be tolerated at MUMS, and that any reported incident will trigger an investigation. Students who feel emotionally or physically unsafe at any time, or who witnesses an incident where others are unsafe, can tell a teacher or building administrator immediately, according to Dudek. They can do this within the school day or after, by calling 802-382-1201 or emailing the principal.

“It is our top priority to rebuild our MUMS culture to ensure that all students feel valued,” Dudek said.

He invited community members to offer their ideas about school cohesion at tinyurl.com/2tewazxd.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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