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Voices / Open Letter

Students can’t use their voices by sitting in silence

Area educators and parents rebut memo with recommendations from education secretary

This open letter to Governor Phil Scott was signed by Beneth Goldschmidt- Sauer, Debra Heller, Stacey Frazer, Crista Yagjian, Gail Greenleaf, Christine Hazzard, Elizabeth H.F. Bissell, Maria DeLuca, Ellen Tumavicus, Molly Stoner, Anne Moore Odell, Josh Fields, Judy Coven, Jen O’Donnell, Laura Chapman, and Virginia Goodman.


We have read with great concern and consternation Rebecca Holcombe’s memorandum on “Student Voice and Civil Debate,” addressed to superintendents, principals, independent school headmasters, and all educators in Vermont.

In this memo, the secretary of education urges the aforementioned parties to foster students’ ability to use their voices to advocate for change, yet suggests that students not participate in the walkouts planned at many schools, but rather share a 17-minute period of silence in the auditorium. (The irony of asking students to use their voices, yet pressing them to sit in silence, goes unacknowledged in the memo.)

In discouraging schools from participating in these peaceful protests, Dr. Holcombe seems to dwell on the disruption that students might cause in the school day; however, the students planning the walkouts at schools like Brattleboro Union High School, e.g., have plans to leave the building, assemble peaceably outside on school grounds, and listen to students speak about the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and its impact.

Doing so will cause no more disruption to the school day than would bringing the entire student body to the gymnasium for 17 minutes of silence — and in the students’ plan, they have agency and control over the message.

* * *

By logical extension of Dr. Holcombe’s suggestion that the students not protest, we cannot help but think that if other marginalized groups — as students certainly feel they are, on this and many other issues — had just held moments of silence without disrupting the comfort of those with the power to effect change, then we would not have had the Sermon on the Mount, the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, and pretty much anything Dorothy Day ever said or did.

Some of us have met and talked with the students who are planning the walkout at BUHS, and we have every confidence that it will be a meaningful expression of their very strong feelings — anguish? fear? anger? — on this issue.

The very core of protest is making previously inaudible voices heard. Staying in the auditorium brings young people no closer to their goal, which is (lamentably) getting us — the adults — to listen.

* * *

As educators, parents, and concerned citizens, we respectfully ask that you support the walkouts scheduled by schools across our state.

In doing so, you will be allowing young Vermonters — who, according to the 2016 census, comprise almost 20 percent of our population — to experience a powerful lesson in advocacy and in the exercise of their Constitutional rights.

Many Vermonters would agree that recent events prove that we need an educated and aware electorate. Participating in a peaceful demonstration will illustrate — to the students and to the rest of us — democracy in action.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #449 (Wednesday, March 7, 2018). This story appeared on page E3.

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