BLM, Pride flag decision stirs debate in Mill River

  • By Keith Whitcomb Jr., Staff Writer for the Rutland Herald
  • July 21, 2020

CLARENDON — The Mill River School Board’s decision to raise flags supporting the Black Lives Matter and Pride movements has sparked a debate in the community, drawing remarks from a local candidate and generating a petition asking the board to reconsider.

On June 17, the Mill River Unified Union School District board of directors voted to fly both flags at all district schools after Reese Eldert-Moore, a student at Mill River Union High School, requested the BLM flag be flown.

Eldert-Moore said Tuesday that while she had not asked that the Pride flag be flown, she’s glad the board decided to do so.

Not everyone was pleased by the decision.

On June 25, at a Community Engagement Committee meeting, Art Peterson, who is running for the Republican nomination in the Rutland-2 House race, said the school board was hasty and displayed a lack of leadership.

“I’m disappointed that one person can come in, make a request of this nature and the board automatically decides to do it,” he said. “Those flags both have a political meaning and those things have meaning to people. When you introduce politics into the schools, these symbols, where does it stop?”

He said the board should have sought public input first, and made a decision based on what it heard.

“Again, when groups that have a flag are involved in violence and hate and are so extreme, and you can look on the internet, it’s not private, you can look on the internet and see the things Black Lives Matter has dealt with and is proud of, and as for the Pride flag, it’s just perverse, I’m sorry, I’m an old timer and maybe that’s language you don’t want to hear, but it’s perverse and it has no business around kids.”

According to minutes from that meeting, 14 people, including Peterson, spoke on the record about the flags. Only four people were in favor; the rest were against the decision for various reasons.

“My remark was about the flag at the schools,” Peterson said on Tuesday. “It had nothing to do with people who have different lifestyles.”

He said he believes issues around discrimination should be handled by the school in another way.

“If you want to educate kids, bring them into a setting talking about them respecting everyone, respecting and being courteous to everyone regardless of color, regardless of gender, regardless of lifestyle,” he said. “That’s the conversation we should be having, and let us get on with education. That flag pole should have the U.S. flag and the Vermont state flag on it, period.”

Peterson said he also would be against a POW-MIA flag being flown at the schools.

He said the BLM flag politicizes education but the Pride flag sexualizes it.

“My opposition, number one, is I think it sexualizes our kids’ education. I don’t think it has any place there,” he said. “If you read a little bit about the gay Pride flag and what the colors mean, it jumps right out at you. I’m not going to go into it here, but it’s a symbol, it’s a beacon, and that’s my opposition as one person.”

He said he’s read information at blacklivesmatter.com and doesn’t feel the BLM flag is appropriate for schools.

“You read who the founders are and what their political beliefs are and they are contrary to every political belief this country is founded on and things we shouldn’t be teaching our kids,” he said.

Eldert-Moore said she’s seen the video of Peterson making his remarks and found his comments upsetting and scary given that he’s running for office.

Eldert-Moore, who is bi-racial, said she’s experienced racism from fellow students and seen it in teachers within the district. She said the BLM flag being flown would show that her life and the lives of other Black and brown people, matter.

“There are a lot of times being a bi-racial teenager in a white state that I really don’t feel like my life matters as a Black person,” she said.

Peterson’s comments about the Pride flag also didn’t sit well with some.

Jess Venable-Novak, of North Clarendon, who identifies as transgender nonbinary, said their daughter is about to start second grade at Clarendon Elementary and seeing the Pride flag would mean a great deal to her and other families in the district.

“I know from the video I watched, Art, I think he used the word ‘perverse’ in response to the flag, which has a lot of connotations especially related to sexuality,” Venable-Novak said. “And when I heard that, it made my skin crawl, but I also felt like it was so off-base with what it means to LGBTQ people. To my family and to other families in the district, it’s really about community and celebration.”

Mill River Superintendent David Younce said Tuesday the School Board will meet Wednesday (tonight) at 7 p.m. remotely. A petition asking the board reconsider its flag decision and put the matter on the ballot for the August primary will be discussed.

“I suspect we’re going to have some healthy public comment,” he said.

Younce said the district has an internal equity committee that’s been working for years now and has discussed the flying of BLM and Pride flags. He said Eldert-Moore’s request aligned with the work that committee had been doing.

The district isn’t just raising these flags, said Younce. A special committee was formed to outline how it would happen and what educational components would go alongside their raising. That committee will report to the board on its progress Wednesday.

Younce said he has not personally heard much feedback on the flags.

“The feedback that I have received from folks kind of aligns with the way the board voted,” he said. “About 80% of it is supportive of it and in favor of that decision, and 15(%) to 20% of folks think it’s not a good idea and that the only flags that should be on the flagpole are the American and Vermont flags, period.”

keith.whitcomb @rutlandherald.com