Brattleboro school uses “intelligent communication” to address racial issues

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(Host) Last year’s debate over a confederate colonel mascot put a spotlight on racial issues at Brattleboro Union High school. This year, those tensions resurfaced with allegations of racial name calling.

But the school is trying to use the difficulty as an opportunity to learn, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) The halls of Brattleboro Union High school have been under reconstruction in more ways than one. The school is in the midst of a multi-year renovation. The student population is also changing.

(India Martin) “You walk around the hall, you feel different because there’s like nobody colored walking down the same hallway as you. It’s just hard.”
(Monique Martin) “And they stare at you, flick the bottom of their hats. And that – I don’t know what it means, but I know it’s something racial.”

(Keese) India Martin and her sister Monique moved to Brattleboro from South Carolina last fall. They weren’t used to being in a school where the non-white population makes up less than six percent of the student body.

This spring India Martin was suspended for fighting in the halls. She says the fights were over racial slurs, which she claims the school ignored until it couldn’t ignore them any longer.

(Martin) “Like, I’m not going to say everybody in this town is awful because a lot of people are nice. There’s just some people make it hard for other people. And it gets on my nerves. Like, I try to hold it in. But it’s just hard after awhile.”

(Keese) Martin’s suspension sparked a protest in which forty-five students walked out. Brattleboro principal, Jim Day, says he can’t talk about specifics. But he says all claims of harassment are investigated fully, as state law demands.

Day also says that situations like these are too complicated to be solved by only following the law. That’s why he accepted Charles Johnson’s offer of help.

(Day) “We needed a conflict resolution group to explore students’ feelings and not just end our process with penalties because of fighting. So Charles volunteered, and we jumped at it.”

(Keese) Johnson works for the Vermont Education Department as the state’s first and only Safe Schools Coordinator. He’s a gray-bearded African American who was the education secretary in Massachusetts before he moved to Thetford more than twenty years ago.

Johnson travels the state helping schools sort out problems involving race, sexual orientation and other differences. In terms of diversity, he says, Brattleboro is changing faster than many places in Vermont.

(Johnson) “There’s some children, teachers in Brattleboro who have never met ‘others’ in the way. We’re being forced to encounter others and that’s part of the challenge we face right now. But it’s a good challenge. These incidents provide an opportunity – a catalyst for people to sit together that would not perhaps sit together if the issues were not there.”

(Keese) Johnson calls his model for bringing people together ‘intelligent communication.’ It’s all about getting used to communicating with and learning from people whose experience is different from your own.

(Johnson) “These are not just skills, by the way, that only students need to learn. Teachers need to learn them too. Administrators need to learn them. That is, how do respectfully listen to someone else? How do you be alert to the biases that you bring to a conversation? And if what I say appears to be racist, then let’s talk about why it appears in someone’s mind to be racist when it’s not. And if it is, let’s confront it.”

(Keese) Johnson says kids who haven’t been around people of color much are bound to have stereotypes.

(Johnson) “And it’s not just a white issue. It’s a minority issue too. We all – African American individuals, people of various religions, people of various orientations – need to appreciate the other.”

(Keese) Brattleboro Union High School began its process of intelligent communication with two school-wide assemblies, where anyone could speak up.

(Joseph Kerlin Smith) “Some people said that they were being made fun of because of the way they looked, their body weight or whatever.”

(Keese) Sophomore Joseph Kerlin Smith moved to Vermont from Ethiopia five years ago. He never even thought about racial prejudice until he came to this country. He wasn’t in Vermont long before he heard the n-word for the first time.

Kerlin Smith was a leader in the student protest over Martin’s suspension. He’s also been part of the smaller dialogues, moderated by Johnson. In those, everyone involved in the recent conflict is invited to meet and talk.

Meanwhile, Brattleboro’s also talking, in sidewalk conversations and letters to the local paper. In a town that’s known for its progressive thinking, citizens are wondering if it’s time for a long hard look, and some intelligent adult conversation too.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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