Last summer, a black Milton Middle School student reported her peer called her the N-word.
The allegation touched off a veritable flood of similar reports. Parents stormed school board meetings. Teachers asked for more training on addressing racism. They wanted minority students to feel safe, because some said they didn’t.
Almost a year later, stakeholders say there’s been progress but also endless miles to go.
POWER OF VOICE
Being a student of color in a predominately white community creates a complex dynamic.
“It’s definitely different,” said Molly Gary, a biracial Milton High School sophomore. “You have all these people who are loving and caring people, but they are so stuck with stereotypes.”
Even Gary’s closest friends will ask if she’s adopted because her mom is white. They’ll ask to touch her hair. They’ll crack inappropriate jokes. It all “rubs the wrong way.”
She thinks people perceive her as someone she’s not. So, who is she?
She’s a college-bound, biracial female with aspirations to enter the field of medicine. She’s a Miltonian. She’s a Vermonter. And she’s not afraid to stand up for herself and fellow students of minorities when an offensive comment is made.
“The lack of education and diversity is what really is the main cause behind [the mistreatment],” Gary said.
She feels a burden to change that. Gary, her non-white peers and other advocates often have to educate teachers and fellow students about racial justice. Still, Gary says students constantly use racist language and blast rap music containing slurs.
Tre Sherwood, a black senior at MHS, was recently the target of a racial epithet. He took to the student-run Yellowjacket Television show earlier this year to ask students to refrain from using the N-word.
Weeks later, someone wrote a message on a school bathroom mirror, calling Sherwood that exact obscenity.
“A lot of people take racism as a joke — which it’s not,” Sherwood said. He sees a need for black history education among his peers.
Students reported a classmate recently left MHS after being targeted by racial slurs. In the community, someone stole a Black Lives Matter sign from a homeowner’s private property. A home on Railroad Street that flies a BLM flag was egged.
Many community stakeholders recognize some people don’t realize their comments and actions are offensive, so raising awareness of what is and what isn’t acceptable to do and say is vital, they say.
In the halls, teachers are increasingly warning students who use hateful language or act unjustly, Gary said. Still, she says, there’s clearly work to do.
POWER OF EDUCATION
Katrina Battle, a biracial Milton native, conceived the Milton Inclusion and Diversity Initiative with the intent of educating Miltonians.
A few months later, MHS senior Emily Pallas found her own voice within school walls and created a social justice group, Milton Students for Social Justice. Participation in both groups remains small, but they continue their mission.
History shows black people are systematically disadvantaged in the United States. Both groups aim to educate Miltonians on this point and how the town can effectively address it within its own systems.
More students than ever are diving into difficult conversations surrounding social justice issues, MS4SJ adviser and teacher Pete Wyndorf said, leaving him optimistic about Milton’s trajectory.
“We can cut darkness with light,” Battle added, noting truth and understanding can overpower miseducation.
MIDI holds community dialogues with adults on how to talk about race, but Battle said its missing link was speaking with Milton’s youth. After months of persistence, Battle said high school co-principals MaryJane Stinson and Anne Blake have invited MIDI to serve as an educational tool for students.
Throughout the district, administrators and teachers are working to address race under the umbrella of equity. Their approach is to first ensure faculty is educated, so knowledge can then trickle down to the students.
Teachers are all at different levels of understanding, early education special educator Kati Ringer explained, and need to learn how to broach the concept of race. She serves on the district’s equity committee, a group of 13 people, a majority women, who have met monthly since November.
The group uses the district vision statement and its core value of equity to determine next steps.
By the end of the school year, Milton Elementary aims to revise one curriculum unit to reflect equity and diversity. Milton Middle School hopes to reduce the achievement gap by 10 percent for subgroups on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test. The high school wants to decrease SBAC equity gaps by 10 percent.
The overall equity plan established three main objectives. By this summer, the district will seek increased diversity in race, gender and religion when hiring new staff. By fall, it wants to increase access to guidance and transition services. By fall 2019, all students should have access to high-quality instruction and a rigorous curriculum, superintendent Ann Bradshaw said, a goal established after the district hosted a long overdue two-night forum on race last December.
Concurrently, MS4SJ’s work is inching forward. Pallas, who helps produce the student-run Yellowjacket TV, created short clips about MIDI, the St. Michael’s College men’s basketball team joining a countrywide protest by kneeling during the national anthem and Burlington and Montpelier high schools raising the Black Lives Matter flag.
MS4SJ hopes to accomplish the latter this year. First, Pallas said the group wants to garner more support and educate the student body on what the BLM organization and flag represents.
The display would celebrate students of color by saying, “‘We appreciate you, and we don’t want you to go through things that you shouldn’t. And that we want you to be heard and respected,’” Sherwood reflected. “It would mean a lot.”
POWER OF COMMUNITY
As the school district’s community forums came to a close last December, facilitators realized an organization would need to shoulder the many improvements attendees prioritized.
The question stood: Would everyone join MIDI’s efforts, or should a new group form?
It turned out the latter was the answer: The Coalition for Milton was born this January.
Comprised of town government employees, district equity committee members, MIDI reps and a few other Miltonians, the coalition has since established four priorities.
They include improving school curriculum about race and racism, increase community participation, change the perception of Milton and create stronger student connections, such as with peer counseling.
To accomplish the first goal, pre-K-5 teachers have all received copies of the children’s book “All the Colors We Are,” Ringer, the early special education teacher, said.
The book includes scientific explanations behind why people have different skin tones. The library now has a collection representing kids of color, and students engage in international trivia contests.
At the high school, English teacher Ellen Taggart shifted the way she teaches “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a novel largely themed on race and racism.
“Feedback from prior students was that [teachers] wouldn’t address the inappropriate words or messages in that book,” said Veronica Valz, a MIDI contributor, parent and Milton Public Library trustee. “They would talk around it; they danced around it.”
This year, though, Valz said the curriculum was head-on; nothing was taboo.
In Montpelier, a bill in the Vermont Legislature calls for implementing ethnic studies standards in all curricula and a policy on racial and social equity in Vermont schools.
Battle, the MIDI founder, is already on the front lines of statewide change. She’s part of three committees that focus on eradicating racism in schools, law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Through the Community Council of Accountability with Law Enforcement Officials of Vermont, Battle is working with town manager Don Turner to implement implicit bias and cultural competency training for town employees. First, Turner said he’s inviting Rebecca EunMi Haslam of Seed the Way, a consulting group that promotes anti-bias pedagogy, to train town staff on talking about race.
In January, Haslam presented to school faculty on the same topic. Ringer noted teachers responded better to Haslam’s small-group approach than a fall inservice with the Peace and Justice Center.
The center’s executive director Rachel Siegel told the school board last fall that the large, lecture-based, “piecemeal” method the district asked for did not follow best practices.
But with Haslam on board, MHS co-principal Stinson said teachers are continuing their professional development, and soon, MHS students will attend a talk with Haslam.
Stakeholders say these efforts will only improve Milton’s status from where it was last summer.
“Growing and pushing people out of their comfort zone is always gonna be hard,” Pallas said. “There’s always gonna be pushback.
“Change is hard for everyone,” she added.
Even if it’s slow.