Lebanon school officials to propose anti-racism policy

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2020 10:05:32 PM
Modified: 10/29/2020 10:05:25 PM

LEBANON — School officials in Lebanon will soon start drafting an anti-racism policy to address issues surrounding bias and systemic racism, following in the footsteps of a neighboring district that recently adopted similar measures.

The School Board voted unanimously Wednesday night to direct its policy committee to draft the document, a process that will likely take months.

School Board member Richard Milius said the undertaking will be a worthwhile endeavor. He proposed creating the new policy, saying it’s important that Lebanon’s schools take a stand against racism and support students already working to combat bias.

“There are people in our community who experience racism every day and in ways that maybe we’re not aware of,” he told colleagues during a meeting held both virtually and inside Lebanon Middle School. “I thought it was something that the board should be involved in, something that the board should be discussing.”

School Board members were quick to agree, calling the proposal a “great idea.”

Milius said the idea of an anti-racism policy was partially brought to the forefront by student-athletes who kneel during the national anthem. Several Lebanon football players have been kneeling during the anthem, sometimes drawing criticism from the fans in opposing communities.

Earlier this month, six players keeled during a game against Newport. When photos surfaced on Facebook, some comments quickly turned ugly, prompting school administrators to file a police report.

Members of Lebanon’s girls soccer team have also been involved in advocating for reform, and recently made Black Lives Matter T-shirts that are worn before warmups.

“It just seems to me that this is a good time to begin a discussion on how to com bat racism in our community,” Milius said, adding the schools should do more to educate those “who don’t understand” the students’ message.

Milius, a chemistry professor at Norwich University, said the board also could look to surrounding communities when crafting its new policy, including neighboring Hartford. That town’s School Board adopte d a policy that aims to eliminate “all forms of racism” in July.

Hartford’s policy includes several initiatives, such as a mandate that teachers and staff are trained on racism and “cultural awareness and/or culturally responsive teaching practices;” respond to racist acts by students by teaching them about the impact of their actions using restorative justice, mediation or role-playing; and assess the “institutional climate” to understand implicit bias and its consequences.

The Hartford policy was drafted by two Vermont Law School students, Arielle King and Jameson C. Davis, who were also New Hampshire/Vermont Schweitzer Fellows, in conjunction with School Board member Peter Merrill and Hartford School Superintendent Tom DeBalsi.

Davis, a former Hartford Selectboard member who also served on the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, attempted to speak to the Lebanon School Board Wednesday night, before being told the anti-racism discussion would only be between board members.

Asked how the Hartford policy was working, DeBalsi on Thursday said, “Things don’t change overnight. It’s sort of work that’s for the long haul. The way we’re trying to do it is by making sure that it’s woven into the fabric of what we do here in Hartford.”

Since the new policy was adopted, students and teachers have formed groups to discuss sensitive topics and expand those talks to peers, he said.

And while the policy has “opened communication” between those in the schools, DeBalsi warned that initiatives are still in their infancy.

“It’s a big pile of work. It’s huge, so we’re trying to chunk it up so we can get some things done this year,” he said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges to student meetings and activities that normally would be easier to facilitate.

Hartford School Board Chairman Kevin Christie also said that implementing anti-racism policies and initiatives takes time.

Hartford’s policy took years to complete and was ushered through by the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, a group with members from the town and school district, he said on Thursday.

“It’s a very personal level of discussion and the work becomes very personal,” said Christie, who is also the chairman of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. “Folks need to take that dive if they’re going to have a better understanding of the topic. There’s got to be introspection as well as learning that goes on.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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