Mill River school district will raise BLM, Pride flags despite controversy

  • By Emma Cotton, VTDigger
  • July 27, 2020

NORTH CLARENDON — Weeks of debate among Mill River Unified Union School District community members culminated last week in the school board’s all-but-official decision to raise the Black Lives Matter and Pride flags at all of the district’s schools. 

Reese Eldert-Moore, a rising senior at Mill River Union High School, anticipated a heated discussion when she asked the board to consider her proposal last month, which prompted the community discussion. It asked the school to consider implementing anti-racist policies, including raising the Black Lives Matter flag. 

The board, whose district includes Clarendon, North Clarendon, Shrewsbury, Tinmouth and Wallingford, accepted, and added the Pride flag, at a June 17 meeting. 

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Eldert-Moore, 17, then watched as a group of residents who opposed the board’s decision push for public comment meetings. They created a petition, which received 500 signatures, requesting a vote on the issue by secret ballot. 

Arthur Peterson of Clarendon, who is running as a Republican to represent the Rutland-2 District in the Vermont House of Representatives, helped organize that petition. 

Mainly, Peterson worries the board rushed the decision without seeking more public input. But his objections are not only related to process. He said he believes Black Lives Matter is an extreme and violent organization, and he’s concerned the flags will politicize the local education system.

“As for the Pride flag, it’s just perverse,” he said at a June 25 Community Engagement Committee meeting on Zoom. “I’m sorry. I’m an old timer, maybe that’s language you don’t want to hear. We need to bring up our kids in a way that doesn’t subject them to this.”

Eldert-Moore said the petition leads her to believe there’s more anti-racism work to be done within the community. 

“It’s not up to you to decide whether I matter enough,” Eldert-Moore said in response to the request for a vote. “It’s a statement. People are saying it’s political when it really should not be. It’s just common courtesy. It’s saying, hey, I exist, treat me like a human.”

At the last of the meetings, held on Wednesday evening, the majority of the 27 commenters, most with a personal connection to the district, supported raising the flags. Some alumni told stories about their experiences at the school, citing examples of times they would have been helped by the flag’s message. 

Christrian Brand, one of the first to comment, identifies as a gay man, and graduated from Mill River Union High School in 2015. 

“When I attended Mill River, students would use hateful terms and slang constantly, whether they knew it or not,” Brand said. “I remember people saying, ‘that’s gay,’ or calling other students and myself ‘faggot.’ … It wasn’t until two and a half years later that I started coming out to my friends and family, and it was the first time I didn’t feel ashamed. … Imagine how I and others would have felt if we saw a Pride flag wave across the school grounds? How we could have been given the chance earlier to be ourselves and thrive.”

About an hour through the comments, Peterson weighed in.

“I’ve heard all the comments tonight, and one thing I’d say: Those flags aren’t going to keep one kid from being racially targeted,” he said, later adding: “I don’t think the majority of taxpayers in this community agree with it, any more than they would agree with a Nazi flag hanging on that flagpole. It’s about the same thing to me.”

At the conclusion of the public comments, Tammy Heffernan, board chair, referenced a conversation she’d had with the board’s legal counsel. She said the elected board members hold legal responsibility for such decisions; the electorate doesn’t hold the authority to instruct the board’s policy. 

The board’s responsibility as a representative democracy, she said, is to hear from the community, then implement practices and policies based on their own discretion. 

The Mill River Unified Union School Board plans to post a final decision on the flag issue within 10 days. School district photo

“We’ve been advised that the request for a vote by the voters by Australian ballot on the issue of flag raising is not within their statutory powers,” she said. 

With that, the board began a discussion about how, not whether, to fly the flags. 

Heffernan said the board plans to post a formal decision within the next 10 days. Still she’s aware that not all community members want the flag raised. 

“I think it will definitely inform the board moving forward that everyone’s not on board, and will give us thoughtful consideration of how we handle the flag-raising ceremony itself, and try to be respectful of the entire community,” she said. “But our focus, first and foremost, is and should be the students.”

Eldert-Moore did not speak at Wednesday’s meeting, but joined to listen. She said she was disappointed to hear Peterson mention the Nazi flag, but felt heartened by the number of reassuring comments.   

“After hearing comments like that, I’m really glad to have some support — a lot of support,” she said. 

A letter signed by MRUHS alumni encourages the board to stay steadfast in its decision. As of Monday afternoon, it had 420 signatures. 

Eldert-Moore said the last month, since that first board meeting, has been tough. She cited heated online debates and offensive comments directed at both her and her mother, Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland area NAACP. 

In Facebook comments reviewed by VTDigger, adults in the community described Eldert-Moore as hateful, used profanity to insult her intelligence, and made disparaging comments about the composition of her race. 

“Even though it was really disrespectful and rude,” Eldert-Moore said, “it really motivates me to do the work I do. I’m powered by frustration.” 

One night in early July, Eldert-Moore was in her Wallingford home alone at 3:30 a.m. when she said she heard a crash and her dogs began to bark. She called her mother who called police while Eldert-Moore hid in a bathroom closet for an hour. 

“I was really worried because I had just started reading about all the backlash,” she said. 

Police cleared the area, but Moore said she plans to install security systems, and that the incident represents the extent to which the community dialogue has affected her daughter. 

“They’re attacking a 17-year-old,” she said. 

Moore has seen her share of online harassment. She received a comment through the NAACP’s contact in mid-July telling her to get out of Vermont.

For Eldert-Moore, watching her mother in her role as the area NAACP president has given her an inside look at challenges associated with efforts like raising the Black Lives Matter flag. 

“Seeing what my mom has gone through has really changed how I look at this,” she said. “It’s not just something you can go into and be like, ‘oh, let’s stop racism.’ It’s more dangerous than that. When I started to do the work to raise the flag, I knew what I was getting into, and it’s not going to stop me.”