Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools
Conclusions and Recommendations
At its November 1997 community forum, the Vermont Advisory Committee received information from parents, students, State government officials, and community organization representatives concerning incidents of racial harassment in both elementary and secondary public schools. The testimony gathered at the forum leads the Committee to believe that racial harassment is widespread and pervasive in and around the State’s public schools and is a reflection of overall race relations in the State. The Committee is deeply concerned for the safety and welfare of all students, particularly minorities, who at times must confront these acts without assistance from school officials and State agencies. Panelists described the public schools as unfriendly and hostile to the needs of minority students, a setting wherein racial slurs, epithets, and physical assaults occur. Panelists also described the general ostracism of minority students from the total school community. As a result, minority students experience fear in attending schools and are reluctant to participate in school activities, adversely affecting their academic performance.
According to many panelists, a climate of insensitivity exists in Vermont communities whereby residents exhibit general intolerance to others of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. This reality has served to inhibit the entire State’s ability to develop a level of sensitivity to civil rights issues unrelated to racial harassment. The Committee fears that the detrimental effects of racism will be evidenced in today’s students long after completion of a particular school year and graduation from the public school system. As students leave the school system, many maintain their racial stereotypes and may perpetuate harmful attitudes towards minorities and feelings of animosity to others in the community. In addition, students who have experienced racial harassment will likely exhibit negative self-esteem, lowered self-confidence, and a sense of estrangement. These feelings may persist into adulthood and contribute to racial tensions in other contexts.
As schools play a major role in making positive changes for a community, it is vital that an emphasis be placed on ensuring that attitudes of racial intolerance are corrected at an early age. Messages of tolerance and sensitivity to minority concerns, transmitted to students and staff, can positively influence Vermont residents and can play a role in changing a culture of intolerance that currently exists. The following conclusions and recommendations are offered by the Advisory Committee to summarize the report’s major findings and to provide proactive suggestions for Vermont leaders and educators.
Racism in Vermont Communities
According to many panelists, acts of harassment, bigotry, and violence have been directed at members of all racial and ethnic minority groups and frequently occur in the public schools. The Committee believes that these acts are merely a symptom of racism that is embedded within the larger Vermont community. As in many other States, racism has permeated into the very fabric of Vermont life, undermining residents’ ability to contribute to the productivity and stability of the State. It has also added to the statewide difficulty to launch and sustain vigorous civil rights protection for minority residents (chapter 1, pp. 1–4, chapter 2, pp. 6–8, 11–13, 15–19, 20–30, 31–33, 48–50).
State officials, civil rights and civic organizations, religious organizations, and business leaders must alert Vermont citizens that racism continues to exist in the State, adversely affecting both minority and nonminority citizens in schools, the workplace, and in everyday interaction. State and community leaders must actively help develop a consensus that racism is no longer acceptable and must be eliminated. Recognizing that this goal takes a sustained effort over a long period of time, government, advocacy, business, and religious organizations must develop a long-range, coordinated plan to deal with the problem statewide.
Elimination of Racial Harassment as a Statewide Priority
As the numbers of minority students increase in the State, information gathered at the forum and followup research suggest there will be a concurrent rise in the number of racial harassment incidents and that these incidents will not be adequately dealt with by school administrators or State agencies. Although there have been efforts by the State legislature to address this issue, it has not become a priority among school administrators, school boards, elected officials, and State agencies charged with civil rights enforcement. In some instances, administrators and government leaders have denied the existence of the problem and do not acknowledge the need for improvements in overall race relations within the State. The business community and private groups (who possess the knowledge and expertise in dealing with harassment) have not elevated the debate to the State level to direct public attention and promote meaningful solutions. Although the Committee repeatedly offered school administrators and government leaders an opportunity to present their viewpoints on the issue, only two administrators attended the forum, while one organization (and one government official) submitted written materials to the Committee subsequent to the event. Their failure to respond, the Committee believes, is a reflection of general indifference and denial or avoidance of the problem of racial harassment (chapter 2, pp. 5, 8–11, 13–14, 17, 27–29, 44–47).
As Vermont’s minority population increases, State officials, civil rights and civic organizations, and business leaders must join forces to enhance community awareness that racial harassment in public schools is a statewide problem adversely affecting minority and nonminority students alike. The problem deserves immediate attention by all segments of the Vermont business, education, and religious communities. The Governor should provide direct and coordinated organization and leadership to raise the collective consciousness to the problem of racial harassment. It is only through coordination and broad community involvement that improvements will be made. Business and government agencies should pool their resources to develop appropriate educational programs and teaching plans, promote community outreach events, and issue public service announcements. Organizations that should lend their support include economic development agencies, the business roundtable, civic clubs, religious organizations, local chambers of commerce, and Vermont teachers/superintendents unions. These organizations, in coordination with State officials, should strive to promote a deeper understanding in every sector of the State of the debilitating effects of racism upon minority and majority students, school staff, and the surrounding community.
The Need for School-Based Responses to Incidents of Racial Harassment
According to some panelists, even when alleged instances of racial harassment occur in schools, it has been reported that administrators are reluctant to accept them as racial incidents and may deny the existence of racial bias in the public schools. Panelists reported that this problem may be due to administrators’ lack of training and ability to recognize and effectively respond to racism in the schools. Training that has been provided to teachers and administrators may not be successful in raising the consciousness or sensitivity of persons in the school system to problems of racial bias. Although administrators are dedicated to their profession, many purportedly exhibit an inability to deal with persons of other races, lacking an understanding on how to instruct students on ways to cope with cultural differences. As a result, administrators may fail to take appropriate steps to discipline the perpetrators of racial harassment and lack skills to remedy the problem (chapter 2, pp. 5–6, 8–11, 13–14, 27–29, 44–47, 51).
State lawmakers, local school boards, and administrators should support diversity in the public schools and actively strive to eliminate racial and other forms of harassment. More specifically, the State Board of Education and the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Education should allocate sufficient resources to provide preservice and in-service training for all teachers, thus underscoring the importance of the prevention of racial harassment. The goal of all training should be to develop a class of teachers who anticipate potential situations wherein harassment may occur and can act swiftly to remedy the problem. Training should include techniques to identify and prevent harassment in school settings and proper instruction on how to immediately resolve incidents when they are witnessed by staff or called to their attention. All training should stress the importance of school-based resolution of the problems so that referral of the incident to State agencies is viewed as a last resort.
The Ineffectiveness of Existing State Law to Address Racial Harassment and Compliance by School Boards
Existing State law is deficient in addressing the problem of racial harassment on a systemwide basis. Vermont’s Anti-Harassment in Education law does not grant the Vermont Department of Education direct oversight responsibility for supervisory unions and local school boards with regard to racial harassment issues. In addition, the law does not provide any penalty provisions for the department to impose sanctions in the event particular boards fail to develop or implement antiharassment policies and procedures. As found by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, various school boards have not adopted provisions of the State model harassment policy and, in some cases, even neglected to adopt any policy. At present, schools report on the existence of racial harassment on a voluntary basis to their local school boards. Because this information is potentially damaging to the school, administrators may be reluctant to assess voluntarily their school’s compliance with the objectives of the statute, disciplinary actions, or the existence of racial tensions (chapter 1, p.3, chapter 3, pp. 54–55).
The legislature should amend the Anti-Harassment in Education law to give the State Board of Education and the commissioner administrative and enforcement oversight authority over race-related issues in school districts so that stronger enforcement mechanisms and appropriate sanctions can be developed. This will enable the Department of Education to determine whether school boards have failed to develop and implement antiharassment polices and procedures that conform to the State model. Directing the commissioner to impose stricter standards for oversight should improve better data collection and reporting and compliance with the Anti-Harassment in Education law by individual schools.
The State Board of Education should make the elimination of harassment against any student a major agenda item of the State school system. The State Board should require disciplinary action for students who harass their peers. The disciplinary action should be commensurate to the severity of the offense and students should be aware that repeat offenses will result in greater consequences. The State board should lead the systemwide effort to instill in teachers a greater appreciation of minority student concerns. The State board should actively support a comprehensive training program on the State policy, the State Anti-Harassment in Education law, and proper disciplinary options that could stop racial harassment from occurring. The State board should ensure that this training program has taken place and report annually to the Governor and legislature on training programs implemented in State schools.
Schools should report their compliance with the Anti-Harassment in Education law in their annual school report submitted to the Vermont Department of Education. The commissioner should require all school boards to compile and report the number of minority students, the number of racial harassment incidents in each school, the type of disciplinary actions imposed upon the perpetrators, and the victim’s satisfaction with the resolution process. This information will enable department staff to assess progress by keeping a record of:
The total number of complaints registered with schools, school boards, supervisory unions and/or the Human Rights Commission.
Whether perpetrators receive appropriate disciplinary action for acts of harassment.
Whether supervisory unions, school boards, school districts, and individual schools employ effective measures to prevent racial harassment incidents.
Whether schools experiencing a high number of incidents have endeavored to improve the overall school climate.
Individual outcomes of cases. Every effort should be made to ensure that information collected will remain confidential.
The Vermont Department of Education should consider developing an incident report form for distribution and use in schools. This form will allow parents and victims to communicate formally instances of racial harassment to school personnel, record their understanding of the incident (including responses by school staff), and suggest ways to ameliorate the situation. Once completed by the parent, the form can be used by administrators and/or Vermont State enforcement agencies to resolve the case.
The Vermont Commissioner of Education should report annually to the Governor and legislature on systemwide compliance with the Anti-Harassment in Education law and make the results of this report available to the public.
Inadequate Staffing at the Vermont Department of Education
The Vermont Department of Education brought to the Committee’s attention serious staff shortages and limited resources available to the department to combat the problem of racial harassment. Because of this staff shortage, it is difficult for the department to set the elimination of racial harassment as a statewide priority and conduct statewide assessments of the effectiveness of local efforts to promote bias-free school environments. It also becomes difficult for the department to help districts implement professional development programs around this issue and serve as a source for local schools for technical expertise (chapter 3, pp. 55–57).
The Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Education should create at least one full-time staff position within the department solely to address racial harassment and promote racial and ethnic tolerance. This staff person would assess the overall success or failure of a school’s attempts to promote a bias-free environment and assist school districts. The Advisory Committee recommends that the commissioner request additional funds from the legislature to support this initiative. We also recommend that the legislature approve this request for increased funds.
The Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Education should mandate that schools develop and provide each parent with information on ways to register their complaints with either the Vermont Department of Education, the Human Rights Commission, or the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The information should describe what steps each educational entity and State enforcement agency must take when complaints are received and the level of monitoring and followup that will occur.
Use of Racially Biased Curriculum Material and Lesson Plans
Serious curriculum issues exist in the State’s public schools. In some instances, teachers employ curriculum materials and lesson plans that promote racial stereotypes. There appears to be no statewide effort to ensure that the Vermont school curriculum is free of racial bias (chapter 2, pp. 10–14, 18–20, 31–34, 43–44, app. 7).
The Vermont Department of Education should take a leadership role in developing and disseminating to all school districts comprehensive, age-appropriate curricula that celebrate diversity, teach respectful behavior to all people, and develop skills to handle conflict.
Vermont schools should incorporate multicultural learning materials in individual schools that reflect the diversity of the State population and not simply the diversity present in the individual classroom in any given school year. Schools should endeavor to promote better tolerance among students by incorporating into lesson plans anti-bias curricula and information regarding diversity issues.
The Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Education and local school boards should develop a joint task force to assist school reviews of curriculum materials. The commissioner and school boards should notify schools when they are found to be using a curriculum that promotes racial stereotypes.
The Advisory Committee encourages schools to conduct mandatory teacher and staff training on the issues of racial harassment and proper curriculum selection and development.
Reviews and Assessments Pursuant to the Equal Educational Opportunity Act
The 1997 Equal Educational Opportunity Act (Act 60) is an effort by State legislators to equalize school funding across school district lines and to promote overall school quality. The act mandates the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Education to conduct assessments of each school to determine if educational opportunities are substantially equal to those provided in other schools. However, the act is silent on the issue of racial harassment of minority students and the reporting by each school of its efforts to prevent racial harassment and foster safe and harassment-free environments (chapter 3, pp. 54–55).
The Advisory Committee urges the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Education to include in his school quality determination an assessment of the existence of bias-free learning environments in each school.
Difficulties in Processing Complaints by the Vermont Human Rights Commission
The Vermont Human Rights Commission, the only State agency specifically empowered to investigate racial harassment incidents, does not have sufficient resources to address effectively incidents in the schools once they are reported. When complaints are made to the agency, parents of minority students experience long delays between the time a complaint is filed and a “reasonable grounds” determination is made. This is due in part to the small number of staff and the infrequency in which commissioners meet to discuss cases. Even when the commission issues a “reasonable grounds” finding, additional delays may occur while an appropriate remedy is fashioned by the agency, victim, and school district. For this reason, minorities are reluctant to come forward with their concerns and feel that assistance from State agencies will not be forthcoming. The experience of persons dealing with the Human Rights Commission is that they are not informed of the status of their complaints. This has resulted in frustration by parents. In addition, complaint processing delays often have serious implications for students who must confront harassment on a daily basis. In some instances, a parent who files a complaint at the beginning of a school year may not receive notice from the Human Rights Commission that it has found reasonable grounds supporting a charge of discrimination until a substantial portion of the school year is over. It is also likely that some charges may not be investigated and completed before a student graduates from elementary to middle, or middle to high school. Assuming the perpetrator is approximately the same age as the victim, the student(s) perpetrating the harassment may end up in the same school (or classroom) as the victim. Parents reported that having to “start over” with administrators in the new school is problematic, given the fact that they are not aware of the severity of the perpetrator’s previous offenses or their effect upon the victim. Parents at the forum underscored that it is at this time when their children are most vulnerable for repeat instances of racial harassment (chapter 2, pp. 11–13, 22–27, chapter 3, pp. 57–61).
The Vermont Human Rights Commission should request (and the legislature provide) increased funding so that it can commit sufficient resources to the timely resolution of racial harassment complaints in public schools. Given the damaging effects upon children and the community at large, racial harassment complaints should be given high priority. When incidents of harassment are reported and “accepted” by the commission, staff should immediately communicate with the victim’s parents in writing to inform them of anticipated processing time and steps that will be taken on their behalf. Commission staff should make every effort to process complaints in a timely manner and seek to expedite resolution of the charge. Commission staff should promptly convene a meeting with the victim, the perpetrator, and his or her parents to gather information and remedy the problem.
In the event both the perpetrator and victim have matriculated into the same school, the commission should ensure that administrators are informed of the perpetrator’s prior conduct. Throughout the commission’s investigation, staff should contact parents monthly to inform them of the ongoing status of their complaint.
The Vermont Department of Education should develop a coordinated system to process racial harassment complaints in public schools. The department should work with the Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to accomplish this objective. This information sharing system should include the periodic reporting by agencies of their intake and disposition of racial harassment cases. The agencies should develop a comprehensive brochure describing the roles and responsibilities of each agency and the complaint resolution process that can be distributed to parents, teachers, and students. These efforts will assist in eliminating confusion experienced by parents who initiate a complaint to public agencies.