BURLINGTON — Hundreds of students, teachers, parents and administrators gathered to watch the Black Lives Matter flag go up over Edmunds Middle School Wednesday afternoon. The celebration was part of a larger student-led effort to raise awareness about racial inequity in schools.
Edmunds joins several other Vermont schools in flying the flag, including Burlington High School and Montpelier High School.
At the celebration, students spoke about why they want their school to actively work toward racial justice.
“Every public institution in the country is guided by racist policies and Edmunds is not an exception,” said Greta Ketterling, an eighth grader who gave the keynote address. “Our research at Edmunds highlights the injustices students of color face at our school, such as racist and uneducated comments made by peers as well as adults.”
Greta also cited statistics about students of color receiving harsher punishments for misbehavior than white students, and the disproportionately low number of students of color in AP classes. These trends are present both in Burlington schools and nationally, she said.
“Racism in education is not a new concept. America was built on racism and the education system along with it,” she said. “Today marks our commitment to creating an anti-racist and safe environment for our community, especially the black and brown students at Edmunds.”
This is not the first time students at Edmunds have participated in anti-racist activism. About 300 students walked out of class last May to protest racism at the school and in the community at large. The students marched to City Hall and then up and down Church Street chanting and carrying anti-racism signs.
At the rally, administrators, including Superintendent Yaw Obeng, said he is proud of the students’ efforts.
“We want kids to be educated going into society,” he said in an interview with VTDigger. “Our vision statement talks about cultivating caring, courageous people, and this is an excellent example of our students standing up and being courageous.”
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The students involved in gaining approval from the school board to fly the Black Lives Matter flag, and in planning the celebration this week, are eighth graders in the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) Collective. The YPAR Collective class is taught in conjunction with community partners from the University of Vermont and focuses on empowering students to take charge of their education and explore issues that matter to them, according to social studies and YPAR teacher Jeremy DeMink.
“The three main issues they identified as going on in our school, not surprisingly, are issues with the LGBTQ community, race and racial issues, and issues with gender discrimination,” DeMink said. “We have three groups working on those three things at the same time, and this is just one of the results that has come to fruition recently.”
DeMink explained that the YPAR curriculum is part of the Burlington School District’s push toward implementing restorative practices, which are intended to build a stronger community.
The students in the YPAR class said they hope the flag raising event will draw attention to further steps the school can take to promote equity and inclusion.
“One of our hopes for this year was to try and get the curriculum changed to incorporate more African and African American history, so people won’t just be aware by seeing the flag but they’ll learn the history behind our country’s creation,” said Anyier Manyok, an eighth grader and YPAR student.
The students also talked about the need for implicit bias training for teachers and students alike.
“I think it’s important to draw attention to the racial inequalities that students of color have to deal with every day at our school and all around the U.S.,” YPAR student Myriam Huener said. “Even though white students don’t have to deal with that they should still understand what other students are going through.”
Although the students said they received a little pushback when they first proposed raising the flag earlier this year, they are glad they were ultimately successful in their advocacy.
“A lot of people felt like we should keep the school neutral because it’s a public institution and since it’s being paid for by taxpayers we shouldn’t take a political stance,” Greta said. “But it’s difficult to remain neutral in a public school since the public education system has never been neutral. It’s always been racially biased, racially unfair. It still happens today, which is why we have to raise the flag, because awareness needs to be brought to this issue. It’s extremely pressing.”
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