‘Where willful ignorance becomes malice’
At the March 28 meeting of the Bellows Falls Union High School Board, student Grace Waryas makes a presentation in support of raising a Black Lives Matter flag at BFUHS.

‘Where willful ignorance becomes malice’

A 17-year-old high school student describes her attempt to get the Bellows Falls Union High School board to allow a Black Lives Matter flag to fly at the school

BELLOWS FALLS — Walking into a room that held the Bellows Falls Union High School school board and about 20 angry community members that lined the back wall with their arms crossed was, to put it lightly, intimidating.

In another light, however, it also made me feel powerful to have made people so mad about my proposal for the school to fly the Black Lives Matter (BLM) flag that they felt they had to bring their friends with them to try and scare off a 17-year-old.

Despite being able to count on one hand how many people there supported me, I felt prepared to present my proposal to the school board and stand my ground in the face of intense opposition.

This whole process truly began in June of 2021, when I presented my idea of flying the BLM flag to the WNESU Diversity and Equity Committee. Because it was the end of the school year, I was told to wait to bring it up during the fall of the 2021-22 school year.

When that time came around, I went to the teacher who facilitates student council meetings and he set up a time for me to meet with the seniors who were the student council officers that year.

With no opposition from them, the next step was to bring the idea up at the next student council meeting. For that particular meeting, about two-thirds of the entire student council showed up and nobody objected to the idea.

I then met with the assistant principal, Sean Murphy, and the principal, John Broadley, and from that meeting, I was given the idea to pass a petition around the school during homeroom time to rally support from the student body.

The petitions, in total, received about 92 student signatures, and this number, when presented at the March 28 school board meeting, was met with some criticism from certain board members.

If there was an opportunity to redo that part of the process, I would have made it an anonymous form for students to fill out online, for I was told by many students that the reason why they didn't sign was because they would have faced ridicule from other students in their homeroom.

* * *

By March 28, I was ready and felt prepared to make my presentation to the school board to explain why I, and others, believed we should have the BLM flag flown at the school and why it mattered.

Even though many people feel that we don't have much racism, if any, within our community, that is far from the truth.

I did my research beforehand and also presented the school board with statistics about our community, including the fact that Bellows Falls is 93 percent white, so when racism does occur, it is much easier to get swept under the rug and ignored.

Throughout the meeting, I was met often with defensive and rude actions from both school board members and community members.

Because my presentation was about why the BLM flag should be flown at the high school and because I had assumed that members of the board would have been at least somewhat educated about what the BLM movement was and what it stood for (whether they agreed with it or not), I was surprised when I was questioned by school board member Brenda Farkas if this was the flag that had the sickle on it. I then had to explain to her how that was not in any way similar, nor was it related to the BLM flag.

Because I had assumed that the board members would be at least a little familiar with what the BLM movement was, I went in with my presentation structured with minimal background information. My presentation was not to educate the board, but to explain why I, and other students, wanted to see the flag raised.

Because of this, however, after I presented, one of the first comments I received from Farkas was that “the Black Lives Matter [movement] has a lot of connotations to it - some political, some are religious. In some ways, people call it a cult for religion by definition...but the presentation lacked some substance about the organization itself.”

The first thing the board chair, Molly Banik, said was, “All lives matter.”

She followed with her explanation as to why she wouldn't and didn't support what I was doing. This did not come as a huge shock to me, though, for back in November 2021, Banik publicly walked out of a school board meeting where a presentation on bigotry was being shared with the board.

As the meeting went on, I also became increasingly aware that the people who were there came not to listen to me or hear me out, but to simply oppose me.

I had to repeat some answers to questions that I had already been asked three or four times. Very few of the people participating in that meeting were actually listening and absorbing what I had said.

There was definitely a divide among the board members in how they reacted to my presentation and proposal. While some members were extremely opposed to what I was proposing, other members agreed with me, supported me, and proposed that a policy should be made for any future requests for other flags to be flown.

Margo Ghia called it “an incredibly important issue and one that I am so glad that you brought to us.”

“I think it's allowing the board to think about some policies that we do not currently have on the books and would be good for us to think about,” Ghia said.

After the board members who had wanted to speak had made their comments, the issue was then up for public comment, and nothing but opposition came from the community members who were in the room.

I noticed that the vast majority of the people making public comments were middle-aged white men and that they appeared to be angry at me, and some of them were even aggressive in how they spoke to me.

Paul Banik falsely called the BLM flag and movement “an advertisement, it's a slogan” and asked, “What if a business says, 'Hey, we just found some free advertisement on a pole in front of a...high school in Vermont'?”

“You mentioned earlier that there is racism here, and, that basically says to me, that you would believe it exists in this room right now,” he said.

“It does,” I responded. “Earlier today, actually, someone in this room said within earshot of me that Black lives do not matter. I heard that with my own ears in the lunchroom this morning.”

From this one example that I gave at his request, Banik accused me of “paintbrushing an entire audience with the feelings of one spoken individual.”

* * *

Luckily, I wasn't the only one feeling uncomfortable and surprised by these comments.

At the next school board meeting I attended, on April 11, multiple people spoke on my behalf.

“I did want to stand up and just express my dismay at some of the displays of ignorance that went on last time we all met here,” community member Jessa Westclark remarked. “There is a point where willful ignorance becomes malice and certain people who spoke definitely have reached that.”

“That is embarrassing as a taxpayer, as one of your constituents, as a parent of a child in this district. I can see why a lot of people don't feel safe there [BFUHS and Bellows Falls]. There was a group assembled behind some of the board members that certainly looked like they were there to intimidate a 17-year-old girl.”

She said she had a bigger concern for the school board: “that you're in charge of the education of an entire district, and the level of ignorance displayed was a bit horrifying.”

Additionally, school board member Pamela Johnson-Spurlock commented that “saying racism doesn't exist here and isn't a problem in Vermont is willful ignorance.”

“People here may not realize they're racist due to living in a homogenous bubble. I have seen and heard it here in Vermont...in my honest truth, our last board meeting reminded me of life in south Georgia from 25-plus years ago,” she continued.

“The racist remarks from board members, either intentionally or not, were shameful and disturbing,” Johnson-Spurlock said. “I implore all board members to do more to educate yourself using credible and factual information.”

“We are supposed to represent all students and their families within this community,” she said. “If we willfully ignore the systemic racism, then we are not truly representing all of our constituents.”

* * *

Because the majority of the reactions that I had received were quite negative, I knew almost immediately that the school board's policy committee would vote down a policy for these types of situations.

However, this wasn't the biggest disappointment for me, for I know that I have now opened a door for our school and community as a whole to begin doing the hard work when it comes to dismantling systems of oppression, prejudice, discrimination, and racism.

It didn't come as a surprise when, in June, I found out that the school board had voted in favor of a policy that states that no flags other than the Vermont state flag and the U.S. flag could be flown outside of the high school.

While I faced blatant opposition and disrespect, I am proud of the punch I swung at the rose-colored glasses that many in our community have worn for decades.

And I hope now that I, and others in the community, can continue doing the hard work to make Bellows Falls and BFUHS a much safer place for BIPOC folx.

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