(This article by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling was first published in the Valley News on Feb. 9, 2017.)
HARTFORD — Members of the public who pushed for the Hartford Selectboard to formally address race relations in the community say they now plan to set their sights on the School Board, in part because the School Board has indicated it will not participate in the formal process.
Last week, facing criticism over an email that included a racist image forwarded by Selectman Mike Morris, the Selectboard unanimously voted to form an Equity and Diversity Committee that they envisioned would include two members each from the Selectboard and the School Board, as well as five members of the public.
The committee was charged with making recommendations to both bodies on issues such as diversity training, policies and accountability in Hartford.
But at a School Board meeting on Wednesday night, Kevin Christie and Peter Merrill were the only board members who voted in favor of participating in the committee.
They argued that it was a moral imperative for leaders to participate in efforts to be sensitive to the needs of multicultural students.
School Board members Paula Nulty, Nancy Russell and Chairwoman Lori Dickerson voted the measure down because, they said, the Hartford School District already has a robust set of practices in place that encourage a welcoming environment for students of all races.
“I’m definitely not surprised at all,” said Olivia Lapierre, a senior at Lyndon State College who works at the Upper Valley Co-op in White River Junction and who was identified as a leader among the crowd that showed up at the Selectboard meeting last week. “I had very low expectations. Even at the Selectboard meeting … right from then, I just knew it probably wouldn’t happen.”
Lapierre, who is black, said the vote “just feels kind of shady. If you suggest something to me and I say, ‘Oh no, I’ve got it covered.’ … Just because you already have things in place doesn’t mean other issues aren’t happening within the school system, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be a part of a community that explores the issues.”
Lapierre said she feels it will be important to put pressure on the School Board in the coming weeks “because this is such a huge issue.”
During the discussion leading up to the vote, Dickerson said School Board members take the issue very seriously.
“I think we should be educated, but I don’t see a need to join a committee to do this, because we already have policies in place. We have training,” she said, according to CATV video of the meeting.
Efforts to reach Dickerson on Thursday were unsuccessful.
Nulty said during the meeting that diversity means different things to different people.
“My own children’s experience in school over the past several months, being conservative, being Catholic, being pro-life, they’ve gotten smacked around like you wouldn’t believe,” she said. “ … Racism is wrong, bad. Everyone should know that. But I worry about things veering off into diversity sensitivity and all those sorts of things. Forgive me, but I don’t believe in the whole ‘diversity’ thing, because (in the view of those who advocate for diversity) … there’s some diversity that’s OK and there’s some diversity that’s not OK. I don’t think that, but I think that’s how it goes. So I am very for doing the right thing, but I’m very reticent about doing it as a board function.”
Russell said during the meeting that she has encountered people from diverse backgrounds in the course of running a day care center for 20 years in the area and never had an issue.
“I do have mixed feelings. As a community member, I would like to make it easier in our community for this not to happen. I would like for it to be a peaceful community and it might take some unpleasantness to get to that point. But I’m not sure as a School Board member I should be doing that,” Russell said.
On Thursday, Nulty expanded upon her remarks made during the meeting, and pointed out that, before the vote, the School Board had heard updates from school principals touting, among other things, a student retreat that focused on diversity issues, and how disciplinary policies within the middle school distinguish between acts of aggression that include racial components and those that do not.
“We do this,” she said. “And we do this in the context of the school, and that’s where I think our time and energy are best put. I think the School Board is already very involved in those things.”
During the meeting discussion, Merrill mentioned his Jewish heritage as he said it is incumbent upon everyone to recognize and struggle against their natural prejudices.
“It’s endemic to the human condition that the other, no matter how you define it, is scary. And it is very hard to get past that instinctual response,” Merrill said. He said the best thing to do was to “address it straight on.”
Christie, who is the sole black member of the School Board and who also represents Hartford in the Vermont House, spoke in favor of participating in the committee.
“We have a responsibility as leaders to take this on. … Even though we may think nothing happens, it’s a very quiet thing sometimes. I’ve been here since the 1970s, and I could tell you stories that would flip you out,” Christie said moments before the vote.
“It’s a learning process and it’s eminently hopeful, and I have to maintain that hope that we can get to the point that it isn’t a problem. But it does take an understanding. … A lot of it is ignorance, for lack of a better word,” he said.
Wayne Miller, a Hartford High School graduate who is black and who said he was subjected to violence as a student, now worries for his young daughter, who is about to enter Hartford’s school system.
He said on Thursday that he doesn’t consider himself a victim, and has learned to overcome the issues.
However, he said, his own experiences pointed to a school system that was ineffective at stopping race-based taunts and violence among students.
“My principal (at the time) said it’s not their fault, because they haven’t had exposure to people from other backgrounds or nationalities,” Miller said. “Right there is a level of ignorance. They haven’t had the exposure. That’s fine. But what are we doing to bring that exposure?”
Miller echoed Lapierre’s call for a public push to get the School Board to reconsider.
The focus on racial sensitivity intensified in Hartford after Morris, the selectman, forwarded an email on Inauguration Day last month that depicted the Obama family and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who also is black, as poor and uneducated characters from the 1960s television show “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Morris later apologized, but fellow Selectboard member Rebecca White earlier this month called on him to resign.
White, who is the Selectboard’s liaison to the School Board, is slated to represent the Selectboard on the Equity and Diversity Committee, and presented the idea to the School Board on Wednesday night.
She said on Thursday that given the School Board’s current stance, the Selectboard would need to revisit its action to rethink the makeup, and charge, of the committee.