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Windsor wrestles with questions about racism, free speech after principal’s post

  • A Windsor School parent who declined to give his name is amongst the half-dozen in attendance to support ousted Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley at a rally organized by Eric Gershman, of Stowe, Vt., in Windsor, Vt., on July 2, 2020. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Organizer Eric Gershman, of Stowe, Vt., speaks at a rally in support of ousted Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley in Windsor, Vt., on July 2, 2020. Between supporters, counter-protesters and the media, there was nearly two dozen in attendance. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As Eric Gershman, of Stowe, Vt., packs up his audio equipment following a rally he organized in support of Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley, Jacob Garnjost, of Windsor, Vt., right, asks why Gershman didn't read Riley's Facebook post that caused the school board to oust her. Riley's post on her page was seen as critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. A 2016 Windsor High School graduate, Garnjost is the son of board member Kris Garnjost. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tiffany Riley

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/2/2020 9:33:18 PM
Modified: 7/3/2020 10:48:55 AM

WINDSOR — For the most part, the many Black Lives Matter protests that have taken place in the Upper Valley since the end of May have taken a familiar shape. Residents have marched or stood in place, delivered and listened to speeches, and made demands of public officials to rein in police spending and to support greater inclusion.

But local responses to national movements can take many forms, and what’s playing out in Windsor, a protracted dispute over whether school principal Tiffany Riley should be relieved of her job over social media comments she made in early June that many saw as critical of Black Lives Matter, is an example of how public officials struggle to sort out the demands of addressing racism, school leadership and free speech.

After its noisy beginning, the dispute between the Mount Ascutney School Board, which governs education in Windsor and West Windsor, and Riley, principal of Windsor’s pre-K-to-12 school, has moved into the hush of private rooms. The board met in executive session Wednesday night and later released a statement indicating she remained on paid leave and that the board planned “to meet with (Riley) next week to gather more information; after that, we will decide how best to proceed.”

Riley has retained Rutland lawyer Bill Meub, whose office did not respond to inquiries this week. Meub issued a statement June 25 that read, in part, that Riley has been “wrongfully treated” and suffered “significant harm.”

“Ms. Riley has been specifically directed by the School District not to contact or communicate with people regarding her dismissal and the school district’s actions or the merits of what has occurred,” the statement said. “We are presently engaging with the School District as directed and as required. When, and if, we are able to discuss the issues and this matter, we will.”

The private meetings have not quieted the debate carrying on in public. National media outlets have covered the story, which has been swept up in the rhetoric of the wider culture wars, even as it remains a local issue. All of which gave shape to the protest Thursday afternoon in Windsor that was unlike any other demonstration related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“At its fundamental core, it is a free speech issue,” Eric Gershman, of Stowe, Vt., who organized the rally and called on the school board to reinstate Riley and to apologize to her, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“But it’s also a leadership moment, a teaching moment,” Gershman added. “Principal Riley called out misinformation” and “attempted to provide balance in this narrative.”

In a post on Front Porch Forum and in an email to the School Board in advance of the rally, he predicted national media would be in attendance. (Both the post and the email were signed, “Eric Wayne.”) He also called Riley’s firing “a professional lynching,” a term most often associated with white mobs killing Black men. When questioned about the word choice by a reporter, he said, “I could have phrased that better.”

In addition to Gershman, eight people turned out Thursday to support Riley. By the end of the rally, which lasted about 40 minutes, about an equal number of Black Lives Matter protesters were in attendance. The event was peaceful, but spirited.

“I don’t think that anything Tiffany Riley said was wrong,” said Deanna Rondos, a Cornish resident whose son attends Windsor High School. She was holding a sign saying “All Lives Matter,” and ended up in a heated discussion with some of the Black Lives Matter supporters.

“I hope the school board, who are good people doing good things for Windsor, say, ‘You know what? We messed up,’ ” and reinstate her, Gershman said from the bandstand on the town green.

Jacob Garnjost, a 2016 Windsor High School graduate, read Riley’s Facebook post aloud and asked Gershman whether he could see where what she’d written had “crossed a line.”

In the post on Facebook early last month, Riley had written, in part, “I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race. ... While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement?”

She added, “just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I’m a racist.”

Black Lives Matter supporters generally say that the phrase points to the urgent need to support Black people who are affected by the unique impacts of anti-Black racism. All lives should matter, they say, but the “BLM” call signals that more work needs to be done to make sure Black lives do.

“Can you understand how Black students or Black parents” would feel uncomfortable with their school principal issuing such thoughts in a public forum, Garnjost asked Gershman. “Why do you think the board” suspended her?

“Political reasons,” Gershman said.

“You don’t think the board had an obligation to do that?” Garnjost asked.

“The real issue here is that she chose to make a public statement like this, as the principal of the school,” he added. “That’s not what they hired her to do.”

In an interview, Garnjost, whose father is a member of the School Board, elaborated. “I just feel like it was a very rash thing,” he said of Riley’s post. At the time, a group of recent graduates called the post “insanely tone-deaf.”

And yet, when he was a student, Garnjost said he “never had an issue with (Riley) at all,” and called her “a perfectly nice person. It’s tough that this has become about her, because this isn’t about her. It’s about what she said.”

“I think it was poorly handled on both sides,” said Paul Belaski, a Windsor Selectboard member and candidate for the Vermont House, who held a Black Lives Matter sign at the rally.

In a way, the rally brought the issue out into the open, if to a small audience.

“In the long run,” Garnjost said, “it might actually be good for the town to get to the bottom of this.”

It’s true that townspeople still have questions. John Tansey, a former longtime School Board member who has also served on the Selectboard, said he’s been following the issue through the news. In an interview, he said he wonders why the board felt it necessary to take that action, saying that it “seemed prompt.” Were there other conversations between the board and the principal, and what other courses of action were considered?

“I believe that, to a person, each has the best interests of the community in mind,” Tansey said. But with the dispute behind closed doors, “they’re in a difficult place right now.”

It’s hard enough to be a local official, but they have to understand that “this is the environment today and that local actions can have national consequences,” Tansey said. “It would behoove all of us to ask as many questions as we can before acting.”

Windsor’s school community could look at this as an opportunity for greater dialogue about racial justice and other thorny issues, said T. Elijah Hawkes, principal at Randolph Union High School and the author of School for the Age of Upheaval: Classrooms that Get Personal, Get Political, and Go to Work, a recent book designed to help educators, students and parents get beyond ideological and cultural posturing.

“Part of the purpose of our school is to serve the needs of our democracy,” Hawkes said in a phone interview. School reform over the past two or three decades has been focused primarily on improving standardized test scores, while civics and civil discourse have been pushed aside, he argued. “I would say that schools are generally not prepared to do this kind of work,” he added.

But in a school that develops the abilities of faculty and students to talk about contemporary issues, responses to those issues are easier.

“Everything is an opportunity for dialogue,” Hawkes said.

Hawkes marched in the Black Lives Matter protest in Randolph on June 13, both because he felt “personally compelled” by the issue at hand, but also because he felt “professionally compelled” to march in support of students, recent graduates and other community members concerned about racial justice.

A teacher or principal need not hide their political leanings, Hawkes said, as long as there’s “honesty and transparency” and they are willing to listen to the school community. If that’s the case, “we are going to be learning from each other.”

The question for Windsor’s schools is who will lead that effort.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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