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Board ousting Windsor principal after ‘insanely tone-deaf’ posts on Black Lives Matter

  • Tiffany Riley

  • David Baker

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/12/2020 9:35:21 PM
Modified: 6/18/2020 10:48:42 AM

WINDSOR — School officials moved to fire Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley on Friday after she wrote a social media post seen as critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The post, written Wednesday on Riley’s personal Facebook page, said she believes “black lives matter” but “I DO NOT agree with coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point.”

Riley, who became principal of the K-12 school in 2015, wrote, “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?” Riley added, before saying, “just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I’m a racist.”

The comments, which were shared widely among Windsor community members this week, led to calls for Riley’s resignation, while a group of recent graduates called the message “insanely tone-deaf.”

Outrage culminated in an emergency meeting of the Mount Ascutney School Board on Friday afternoon, where members voted unanimously to place Riley on paid administrative leave, according to Superintendent David Baker.

Baker said the school district will work in the coming weeks to craft a “mutually agreed upon severance package” with Riley.

“They don’t see any way that she’s going to go forward as the principal of that building given those comments and that statement,” he said during a phone interview Friday afternoon. “It’s clear that the community has lost faith in her ability to lead.”

Emails seeking comment from Riley were not returned Thursday and Friday.

Riley, known at the time as Tiffany Cassano, had been an assistant principal at the school and became acting principal in 2015.

A Woodstock High School graduate, Riley attended the University of Florida and also earned a master’s degree in education leadership from Castleton University. She has worked in Vermont schools for about two decades.

Baker said he received about a dozen letters from community members and parents expressing concern over Riley’s post. At first, he assumed her account had been hacked.

“I felt like a post like that, with those kinds of racial overtones and what I define as pretty much outright racist in my values system, she would have never posted that,” Baker said, adding that he later confirmed Riley wrote the post.

Among the letter writers were 12 members of the Class of 2020, who signed a joint letter calling on the district to take action.

“I have seen so much good happening in our community lately in conjunction with the Black Lives Matter movement and it has filled me with a sense of pride,” Belle Moulton, the class valedictorian, wrote in an email to Baker. “However, to read such a post immediately made me realize how ignorant some people in our community still are.”

“I would like to see Windsor schools take (the) lead in our greater Vermont community and demonstrate dedication towards inclusivity,” she added. “This means having leaders that value every being and bring awareness and respect towards demographics that are less valued as a whole in our country.”

The School Board next week will unveil updated plans to address racism, which will likely include a task force made up of community leaders and alumni, he said.

“We have to take this watershed moment and really start to make some serious plans going forward,” Baker said.

However, some community leaders and former students say they’ve offered past recommendations to address racial issues in the schools and were met with either indifference or dismissive comments.

“Our actions will always speak louder to our children than our words,” Windsor Selectboard member Amanda Smith said in an interview Thursday. “And now is not the time for empty words and committees that linger on for years and years to talk about good things that we can do. It’s about creating actionable change now.”

Smith, who has children enrolled in Windsor schools and is involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, offered four recommendations earlier this week that administrators could tackle over the summer. They include installing a Black Lives Matter flag, creating multicultural components to all classes and providing staff with information about combating racism.

Smith also hopes the district will institute a restorative justice program that will help students overcome racist beliefs.

But, she said, district officials didn’t take up any of those actions and responded to her with talk of a “nebulous committee that might talk about change.”

Iyanna Williams, 2015 Windsor High graduate, also said she was dismissed when bringing concerns and suggestions to district officials.

She initially contacted the school district earlier this month after noticing an American flag spray-painted into the Windsor School lawn.

“I just thought that that was out of character and given the current circumstances and climate of the world right now, I just wasn’t sure how comfortable I felt with that,” she said.

Williams expressed those concerns in an email, with officials later telling her they would be open to a similar Black Lives Matter display and that the American flag had been planned before the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked national protests. When no BLM flag was displayed by graduation, she penned another email saying she was “saddened” by the district’s response.

“I am unfortunately not surprised. You chose not to hear me much like America has chosen to hear black and brown people across the nation,” she wrote.

Baker responded in an email saying Williams “won’t have to push for anything because we are all over it.” He went on to say the district last year increased its “due diligence” on implicit and racial injustice and will “act accordingly” to promote racial justice.

“And, I want to repeat, this won’t happen because I am pushed, this will happen because it needs to happen,” he said in the email. “I do it for my two biracial grandchildren and for the entire community of color.”

“I think it’s very insulting that you lump a whole category of people (school administrators) together,” Baker added. “That’s exactly what you hope this country will not do to the African American community.”

Williams said the response to what she considered constructive criticism and suggestions felt unjustifiably defensive.

“It kind of just reiterated to me that you’re not actually listening to what I’m saying, more you’re listening to respond,” Williams said of the experience. “I felt like I just wasn’t taken seriously as a woman but also as a black woman who did graduate from there.”

Baker said Friday that Williams’ concerns, made just a few days before graduation, didn’t allow time to paint a Black Lives Matter flag into the lawn. The American flag, he said, was one of many decorations planned to give graduation devoid of crowds more cheer.

Baker added that the school district had earlier planned to hand out American flag T-shirts and water bottles on graduation day, but abandoned that effort after Williams reached out.

While staffers have undergone implicit bias training and anti-racism training, the school district will be taking an active role in the fight against racism, he said.

Smith said the School Board’s decision to place Riley on administrative leave provides Windsor with an opportunity to bring forward a “forward-thinking leader” that can enact change.

“I think we need to back up our words with actions and I think that’s what they did today,” she said, referring to the School Board.

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




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