Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools: A Progress Report
Vermont has not escaped the racial prejudice that has afflicted our nation for centuries. In its 1999 report, Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools, the Committee identified racial harassment as a pervasive problem that harmed minority as well as white children in the stateís schools. In some cases, the problem was exacerbated by administrators not responding appropriately to incidents because of the lack of training and clear standards for schools to follow.
The Committee hoped that the report would move legislators, educators, and business and religious leaders to join forces to improve the safety and educational welfare of all Vermontís children. This would require making the elimination of racial harassment a statewide priority by state leaders, who could lend their coordinated efforts and leadership to the problem. To accomplish this goal, the Committee recommended that the state legislature give greater investigative and enforcement authority to the Vermont Department of Education (VDOE) and the Vermont Human Rights Commission (VHRC), two agencies best suited to spearhead the effort. By allocating sufficient funds and hiring additional staff, the agencies could work directly with local school boards, educators, and parents to handle complaints, develop appropriate bias-free curricula, and improve the overall school climate.
In the three years since the reportís release, the Committee monitored many exemplary efforts undertaken by state agencies, schools, and community action organizations to accomplish these goals. By holding its town meetings and soliciting written responses to its questions from these entities, the Committee learned of the considerable progress Vermont has made in addressing the problem of racial harassment in schools and in the larger community, including (1) enactment of a new anti-harassment and hazing law (Act 120); (2) efforts by organizations, such as VT LEADS, to bring together education leaders to coordinate their efforts to eliminate racial harassment; (3) major conferences and training programs on diversity and anti-racism issues; and (4) reallocation of staff and agency priorities by VDOE and VHRC to better address prejudice in the schools. However, the Committee identifies four remaining problem areas:
Racial and other forms of harassment continue to occur, as reported by VHRC, community groups, and victims. A significant number of incidents are race related, with some accompanied by physical altercations or serious threats of violence. As the Committee concluded in 1999, some administrators are not responding effectively to stop the incidents from reoccurring.
There is no coordinated plan to address the problem among various education entities, state agencies, and advocacy organizations. Training of teachers, administrators, and school staff to develop a common understanding of appropriate responses to incidents has begun, but this needs to be instituted in a systemic, mandatory way. Appointing and training civil rights officers in each school to receive and investigate complaints, as proposed in Vermont House of Representatives Bill 113, would help in this regard.
Vermont lacks a comprehensive, reliable way to collect and analyze data on harassment incidents. Although VDOE began collecting data, it needs to provide more guidance to schools to guarantee the accuracy of the information. VDOE should give serious consideration to developing a clear process for reporting, recording, and processing incidents. It needs direct oversight responsibility to ensure that school systems collect data and report findings to the public. A standard incident report form should be developed for parents to formally communicate incidents of harassment and bullying to school officials.
The Committee commends the efforts that Vermont has made since 1999 to address the problem of racial harassment in its schools. There is a genuine commitment among many individuals and organizations in the state to ensure that schools are safe learning environments for all students. Indeed, one of the challenges that remains for Vermont is to identify best practices that schools and communities have developed for dealing with the problem and implement them on a statewide basis.In recent years, there has been much discussion in Vermont of the need to be competitive in the global marketplace. Clearly, Vermont will be at a serious economic disadvantage if the stigma of bigotry deprives the state of a competent, diverse workforce and if our schools produce graduates who do not understand and respect differences among all people. Beyond this pragmatic consideration, the very high value that Vermonters place on strong communities is at risk if we do not embrace the growing diversity of those communities. We have taken important steps in that direction; the real work lies ahead.