The burden of proof is on the victim

When newspapers focus on the anonymity of the testimony of members of Black N Brown at DP, they dismiss the accusations of racism and abuse. Degrees of Freedom must engage in honest conversation with the Marlboro community about how they can assure a safe space for their students.

MARLBORO — In our justice system, the accused stands trial. But outside our court system, the burden of proof is almost always laid upon the shoulders of the victim.

In their recent articles [“Anonymous allegations roil Marlboro College sale,” Reformer, July 14] and “Critics urge opposition to campus sale” [The Commons, July 15], both publications failed to hold Democracy Builders Fund accountable for the accusations of racism and abuse raised against its founder, Seth Andrew, during his time leading Democracy Prep charter schools.

According to a 2008 study in the British medical journal The Lancet, only 1 in 10 instances of child abuse is reported. Reasons for not reporting abuse include fear of retaliation from the abuser, thinking it was a private matter and fear of not being believed.

It's no wonder that victims who report their abuse often wish to remain anonymous.

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Focusing on the anonymity of the abuse testimony from more than 350 members of a collective named Black N Brown at Democracy Prep provides a convenient way for readers to dismiss the allegations, something that the leaders at Democracy Builders were clearly counting on.

“I'm honestly extremely frustrated about being distracted by these anonymous, and ill-intentioned attacks, and the local opposition they've generated,” said Jamie McCoy in the recent Commons article. McCoy is an alumna of the founding class at Democracy Prep and was hired as the internal communications liaison for the charter school from 2014 to 2017.

Jazel Smith, a board member at Democracy Builders and a former student at Democracy Prep, said this in response to one of the anonymous testimonies that mentioned Andrew taunted “get used to it” when a student had to go through a metal detector.

“There are no metal detectors in any of DP's buildings,” Smith said, “so only someone with no actual knowledge of DP, but a dangerously mistaken sense of what our schools were like, would write or publish that, even anonymously.”

Hours after the article was published, Jay Hepburn came out of anonymity to claim authorship of that testimony and to qualify that the incident with the metal detectors occurred on a school trip, not at the school.

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Focusing on anonymity also dismisses the non-anonymous accounts that have been recorded and published.

Accounts like that of Zenzile Keith, former staff at Democracy Prep, who described the abuse she witnessed during her tenure at the school. Her testimony at the July 9 Marlboro Selectboard meeting was heartbreaking and impossible to ignore for everyone in attendance.

Keith said when students spoke Spanish it was referred to as “street language,” and she said that “student's cultures were disrespected.”

And like that of J LeShaé, a former Democracy Prep teacher in Harlem, who was interviewed by VTDigger in an article, “Questions raised about Marlboro College buyer in 11th hour.” She described the school's no-excuses discipline practices as “psychological warfare.”

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Those of us in the Marlboro community who have raised concerns about the sale of the college campus to Democracy Builders, based on the testimonies from former students and faculty at Democracy Prep, should not be lumped in with “those who have opposed all change at Marlboro College,” as education consultant Basil Smikle insinuated in the Commons article.

We are simply asking Democracy Builders for accountability. Their founder has admitted his role in “perpetuating systemic racism” at Democracy Prep. How will Degrees of Freedom ensure that those systems of abuse won't continue?

Our goal is to protect the Black and Brown students who will be attending the Degrees of Freedom program on the former Marlboro College campus.

A letter from the Marlboro Selectboard asked for the Marlboro College Board of Trustees to do a thorough investigation of the testimonies made by the collective. But I'm asking Democracy Builders to respond directly to our community about these allegations instead of dismissing our opposition as “cancel culture” and halting further dialogue.

The mostly BIPOC design team at Democracy Builders who are quoted in these articles could have previously introduced themselves to our community at either a Selectboard meeting (which they subsequently did), school board meeting, or at our community center coffee hour every Saturday, all held via video conference. But instead, they chose to go to the press and creatively paint broad-strokes characteristics across our entire community.

We are not interested in saving Marlboro College. We are saving the dignity and education of Black and Brown students in our community.

I reached out to the Reformer, asking them how they verified that the Degrees of Freedom program will be Black-led. They responded that they were simply quoting Chandell Stone, director of recruitment for Degrees of Freedom and a former Democracy Prep teacher who said that she “hopes the anonymous critics step into the open and engage in an honest conversation about what a Black-led college in Southern Vermont might look like.”

I wonder, if one of their students in Degrees of Freedom made an anonymous complaint, would they dismiss it as handily?

The leadership team at Democracy Builders should take their own advice, step into the open, and engage in honest conversation with the Marlboro community about how they can assure a safe space for their students.

We are ready and willing to engage.

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