Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools

Chapter 1


I urge you to please develop a sense of urgency about racism within our schools. All of our children are being diminished. If you are in a position to receive this report, you are most likely in a position to do something about it. You have an obligation to all children to be a catalyst for change. Don’t allow the legacy that parents of children of color have had to pass on to each generation continue, the legacy of picking our children up at 2:30 and attempting to repair the damage that has been done to them during their school day. Racism is not a problem or an issue; it’s a way of life.

– excerpt from parent testimony[1]

On the evening of June 25, 1997, a 13-year-old African American boy was beaten with a baseball bat outside a Burlington mall by several white teenagers, who witnesses claim shouted racial remarks at the victim.[2] A week before the attack, community leaders in Burlington sponsored a forum to discuss race relations and ways to end racial harassment in the surrounding community. The forum was spearheaded by support groups and community action organizations that for many years have expressed concern for the safety of minorities and have voiced their belief that overall race relations in the State have deteriorated.

These organizations, formed to serve Vermont’s expanding minority population, have monitored the rise in the number of racial harassment incidents against minority youth, some of which occurred in and around Vermont public schools.[3] Although the number of actual incidents is not available, the Vermont Human Rights Commission, the Vermont Department of Education, and community groups have documented numerous cases of racial harassment directed at students of all ages. These include physical and verbal assaults against minority elementary school students, racial harassment of an African American high school student by athletic team members, and racial epithets directed at a biracial student.[4] It is alleged that these incidents are a small sample of the kinds of racial harassment that occur in the public schools.[5]

It has also been reported that some school administrators have shown a reluctance or unwillingness to take necessary action to prevent these incidents. In some cases, the Vermont Human Rights Commission found that although school officials were aware of the harassment, schools failed to put a stop to the conduct or did not take appropriate steps to redress the systemic problem of continuing racial harassment.[6] In one case, over a several year period, parents of a minority elementary school student reported incidents of racial harassment to the school administration, which responded to each incident. When the child’s parents asked the school to take broader remedial action, no additional action was taken until the student was subjected to five incidents in a 2-week period.[7] It was only after these incidents that the school contacted the parents of the harassing students and threatened to impose harsher disciplinary action against the students.[8] However, the minority student felt he had to avoid certain groups of students at the school in order to prevent himself from being harassed.[9] In a similar case, the parent of a biracial student reported incidents of racial slurs to school administration, which issued a warning to the students involved.[10] During the subsequent school year, one of the perpetrators again harassed the minority student; however this time, school administrators refused to issue additional sanctions other than a warning since this incident occurred in a new school year.[11] School administrators also refused to schedule schoolwide seminars or diversity training despite the urging from the parent of the harassed student.[12]

Prompted by incidents such as these, government officials and community organization representatives urged lawmakers to adopt legislation prohibiting racial harassment in the State’s public schools. In an effort to ensure that the State’s public schools maintained safe learning environments, the legislature passed in 1994 a State law prohibiting unlawful harassment of students.[13] This law (known simply as the Anti-Harassment in Education Act) requires school boards to develop and adopt a harassment policy and procedures that include: 

  1. A statement prohibiting unlawful harassment of a student.

  2. A definition of harassment.

  3. Consequences and appropriate remedial action for staff[14] or students who commit harassment.

  4. Procedures for reporting harassment of students, including the designation of two or more persons within the institution to receive complaints.

  5. Procedures for publicizing the availability of the Vermont Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

  6. A statement that acts of retaliation for reporting harassment or for cooperating in an investigation of harassment are unlawful.

In implementing this law, school districts were given the option of developing and initiating age-appropriate programs to effectively inform students and staff about the substance of the policy and procedures (see appendix 1).

Subsequent to the adoption of the Anti-Harassment in Education Act, the Vermont Department of Education developed a model harassment policy for school boards to adopt and administer in their respective districts (see appendix 2). The model policy, developed in conjunction with other State agencies and community groups, supplemented the law by adding the following elements: (a) definitions of unlawful harassment and sexual harassment, (b) a distinction between voluntary and mandatory reporting, (c) a duty to act when a school district encounters discrimination, (d) a prohibition against retaliation for reporting harassment incidents, (e) the option of designating an equity coordinator in each school district/supervisory union, (f) a confidentiality requirement, (g) an informal resolution process, (h) appeal procedures, and (i) training methods. The Department of Education distributed information and materials to assist school districts to implement the polices and procedures as required under the law.[15]

In early 1997, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) received anecdotal information from parents and community leaders that racial harassment incidents were occurring in the Burlington area, which had experienced unprecedented increases in minority student population. These concerns prompted OCR in May 1997 to initiate a “Profile, Assessment, and Resolution” (PAR) review[16] of the Burlington school district based on claims that incidents were not being effectively addressed by the district. [17]

The focus of OCR’s review was to determine (1) whether students were treated differently on the basis of their race and (2) whether differing degrees of discipline were applied to minority students.[18] As part of the week-long review, OCR conducted a series of meetings with administrators, teachers and staff from the Burlington school district, members of the Burlington School Board, and students and their parents. In focus group sessions[19] with parents, among other claims, they alleged that the district failed to provide adequate resources to address harassment issues and support minority students. In addition, they claimed that the district failed to communicate efforts to address issues of diversity and racial harassment and at best provided “ineffective, sporadic, and superficial training on diversity issues.”[20] They also expressed their belief that the faculty did not respect minority students.[21]

Following the review, the school district and OCR entered into an agreement to resolve these and other issues. Under the agreement OCR will continue to monitor the Burlington district’s implementation of improvements over a 1-year period (see appendix 3). Independent of their review of the Burlington school district, OCR asked each school board in the State to provide copies of their model harassment policies so that OCR could determine each district’s policy. OCR found that in several instances some school districts had failed to adopt any policy and that many districts had drafted policies that neglected to include essential elements as suggested by the State.

The Vermont Advisory Committee

Throughout 1996 and 1997, the Vermont Advisory Committee held three briefing sessions with Vermont Department of Education officials, community groups, and parents of minority students.[22] Presenters at these meetings informed the Committee that although the Anti-Harassment in Education Act required school boards to adopt antiharassment policies and procedures by August 1, 1995, many had not complied with the law. In addition, they alleged that State officials had collected little information regarding which districts were in compliance with the law or had developed effective policies as suggested in the State model.

Representatives from the Mt. Elmore Institute, a private consulting organization, reported that the number of racial and sexual harassment incidents in Vermont schools were frequent and common.[23] They claimed that many administrators, staff, and teachers were poorly prepared to address the incidents, and at times exhibited a deep reluctance and hostility to harassment issues. In addition, when teachers and administrators permitted hostile environments to continue, they observed students were being taught to ignore or take part in harassment incidents.

The Advisory Committee heard of allegations involving particular schools permitting a racially hostile environment to exist and, in some instances, encouraging activities that were derogatory to minority students. The Advisory Committee also learned of the establishment of an “anti-racism hotline”[24] and efforts by the African American Advisory Committee to the Vermont Department of Health for the classification of school-based racism as a public health issue.[25]

These developments prompted the Advisory Committee to undertake a project titled “Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools” to gather information from State officials, community leaders, parents, and students. The Advisory Committee hoped that its efforts would contribute to the Commission’s continuing efforts at addressing racial bias in the Nation’s communities.[26]

On November 4 and 5, 1997, the Advisory Committee held community forums in Burlington and Rutland.[27] In addition to Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle,[28] participating panelists included representatives from the Vermont Department of Education, State Human Rights Commission, the University of Vermont, school teachers and administrators, and parents of minority students.

Throughout these forums, parents and students reiterated their belief that some Vermont schools are unsafe learning environments for minority students and many viewed safety as their primary concern. As stated by one parent:

Racial harassment in all its forms, including taunts, repeated use of the N word, as well as physical assaults, have been the norm rather than the exception during my children’s school career. …Nearly on a daily basis, my daughter was called the N word, was punched, kicked, and spat at.[29]

To quote one parent: 

The main concern I have is the safety of my children. They can go to school and not learn anything, but if they come home alive, I’ve got a chance. …They cannot learn if they spend all their time looking after their safety.[30]

As will be shown in the following report, parents of minority students, teachers, and community leaders expressed similar concerns at both forums and reported instances of racial harassment (including racial epitaphs and physical abuse) directed at minority students of all ages. In addition, some parents claimed that some school districts have not adequately responded to incidents of racial harassment and that existing State law is deficient in addressing the problem on a systemwide basis.

This report is based on forum panelist presentations and supplemented by followup research. Chapter 2 of this report offers edited statements made by panelists and members of the public. In addition, this chapter describes the Committee’s efforts to solicit information from government officials, school administrators, and staff who chose not to attend the forum. Chapter 3 provides an overview of the Vermont public school system and describes the respective roles of State agencies that monitor racial harassment incidents such as the Vermont Department of Education, State Human Rights Commission, and the Attorney General’s Office. Also included are a description of State demographic information, elementary and secondary school enrollment data, and mention of recent State educational funding legislation in the context of school quality standards. Finally, chapter 4 presents the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations.

[1] Leslie McCrorey Wells, testimony before the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Burlington, Vermont, Nov. 4, 1997, Burlington transcript (hereafter cited as Burlington Transcript) p. 282. The transcript of these proceedings is on file at the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office.

[2] Shay Totten, “Rebuilding Racial Harmony,” Vermont Times, July 9, 1997, vol. 7, no. 28; and Lexis/Nexis State News Service, “Minority Leaders Charge Racism,” June 27, 1997.

[3] See Lexis/Nexis State News Service, Vermont, June 17, 1996; Kristin Bloomer,New Group Vows to Fight Racism,” Rutland Herald and the Sunday Times Argus, June 16, 1996.

[4] Susan M. Sussman, former executive director, Vermont Human Rights Commission., written statement presented to the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, May 15, 1996. A copy of the statement is on file at the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Harvey Golubock, director, Vermont Human Rights Commission, testimony, Burlington Transcript, p. 56.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In this case, the Vermont Human Rights Commission reached an agreement with the school and parents. The parents were paid a monetary award, and the school implemented procedures to prevent reoccurrence of the harassment. Ibid., pp. 56–57.

[10] Ibid., p. 54.

[11] Ibid., pp.54–55.

[12] Ibid., p.55.

[13] VT. STAT. ANN. tit. 16, § 565 (1997).

[14] Staff is defined as teachers, support staff, agents of the school, school board members, and unpaid volunteers. Ibid.

[15] Paul Fassler, legal counsel, Vermont Department of Education, testimony, Burlington Transcript, p. 72.

[16] A PAR review is a method to review a school systems’ title VI and title IX compliance. The goal of the racial harassment PAR review is to initiate changes in the district that would enhance educational opportunity and ensure an educational environment free from harassment. The office conducts investigative interviews and focus groups with school officials, students, parents, and community leaders before issuing recommendations to the school board for action.

[17] This characterization is based on information received from OCR. However, superintendent of the Burlington school district, Donna K. Jemilo, offers a different interpretation of the reasons for OCR’s review. See app. 11.

[18] U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, draft recommendations to Burlington school district related to discipline and racial harassment, May 16, 1997. A copy of the draft recommendations is on file at the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office.

[19] On May 12 and 13, 1997, OCR hosted two community dialog sessions at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington.

[20] U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, draft recommendations to Burlington school district related to discipline and racial harassment, May 16, 1997. A copy of the draft recommendations is on file at the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Briefing sessions were held on May 15, 1996, May 13, 1997, and Aug. 28, 1997.

[23] Mt. Elmore Institute, written material submitted to the Advisory Committee at its May 15, 1996, planning meeting. A copy of the material is on file at the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office.

[24] Established in 1996 by the Vermont Anti-Racism Action Team, the hotline allows parents and students who are victims of harassment to speak in confidence with counselors.

[25] African American Advisory Committee to the Vermont Department of Health, recommendations to the Commissioner of Health, October 1997. A copy of the recommendations is on file at the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office.

[26] The Commission has addressed the issue of racial bias and its effects on equal educational opportunity in a variety of publications, some of which include: Racial and Ethnic Tensions in American Communities – Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination – A National Perspective (1992), Intimidation and Violence – Racial and Religious Bigotry in America (1990), Bigotry and Violence on American College Campuses (1990). The Commission’s State Advisory Committees have similarly monitored race relations and educational issues. See Fair and Open Environment? – Bigotry and Violence on College Campuses in California (1991), Campus Tensions in Connecticut – Searching for Solutions in the Nineties (1994), Racial and Ethnic Tensions in Florida (1996), Bigotry and Violence in Georgia (1989), Race Relations and Equal Education Opportunities at Proviso West High School (1996), Racial and Religions Tensions on Selected Kansas College Campuses (1992), Campus Tensions in Massachusetts – Searching for Solutions in the Nineties (1992), and Bigotry and Violence on Missouri’s College Campuses (1990).

[27] A transcript of these proceedings is on file at the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office. All quotes in this Advisory Committee report, unless otherwise noted, are taken from this transcript.

[28] An edited version of Mayor Clavelle’s remarks is presented in app. 6.

[29] Jackie Hickerson, testimony, Burlington Transcript, p. 153.

[30] Anne Borys, testimony, Burlington Transcript, pp. 23–24.