Racial harassment examined in Vermont schools

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(Host) A new report says that racial harassment continues to be a serious problem in Vermont schools.

VPR’s Steve Zind has the story.

(Zind) The Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued it’s first report on racial harassment in schools in 1999. It called the number of racially motivated incidents disturbing and said that racial harassment appears pervasive.

In releasing its new progress report, the committee said gains have been made, but the problems persist. Committee Chairman Erik Sakai says some local schools have taken steps to address racial issues, but what is needed is a statewide effort.

(Sakai) “Vermont needs to send a very clear, unequivocal message that racial harassment will not be tolerated in our schools. We don’t believe that that message has been communicated as clearly and forcefully as it needs to be.”

(Zind) While other panel members spoke in support of the report’s conclusions, one member says he could not endorse it. Charles Johnson is the state’s Safe Schools Coordinator. Johnson said racial harassment in schools is a problem, but he disagrees with the assessment that it’s pervasive. Johnson said the report does not acknowledge the work schools are doing to deal with racial harassment.

(Johnson) “Schools are doing a fantastic job, in general. There are people who need more training, etcetera. But I think we need more conversation and less accusation.”

(Zind) The report recommends that employees at each school be designated and trained to look into racial harassment complaints. It also calls for remedial action or penalties against students responsible for racially motivated incidents, and for school personnel who don’t comply with state harassment laws.

Although the committee does not endorse legislation, its recommendations parallel a racial harassment bill currently in the legislature. Rutland Representative Virginia Duffy serves on the House Education Committee. Duffy said testimony taken by her panel indicates that documented cases of racial incidents in schools are rare. She says both the bill and the advisory group’s report are devisive.

(Duffy) “This bill, and the conclusions of your report put us on a very dangerous path, where students parents and teachers might view themselves as adversaries, victims and targets, rather than as Americans of all races, creeds and colors, living learning and working together to become successful and productive citizens blessed with the extraordinary opportunity to take part in the American Dream.”

(Zind) Duffy called “outrageous” a section of the report that characterizes racism as ingrained in American society. Robert Appell of the Vermont Human Rights Commission countered.

(Appel) “Disregarding the historical of this country’s racial oppression through its institution of slavery misses the point as to why we continue to suffer the ramifications.”

(Zind) Vermont’s minority population is small but growing. Just over 4% of children in Vermont schools are minority students.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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