Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools: A Progress Report

Chapter 1


In its February 1999 report, Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools (the 1999 Report), the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (the Committee) concluded that “racial harassment appears pervasive in and around the state’s public schools,” observing that “the elimination of this harassment is not a priority among school administrators, school boards, elected officials, and state agencies charged with civil rights enforcement.”[1]

When the 1999 Report was released, there was little comprehensive data with which to assess the extent of racial harassment in Vermont. But since then, several sources have become available indicating how serious the problem is.

1. Partly in response to the 1999 Report, the Vermont General Assembly in 2000 passed an anti-harassment and hazing law, commonly known as Act 120,[2] requiring schools to submit annual data on harassment and hazing incidents to the Vermont Department of Education (see appendix 1). Thus, we now know that 25 percent of the 2,551 harassment and hazing incidents reported for the 2001–2002 school year were race related.[3] Given that Vermont’s nonwhite students represent 4.17 percent of the total school population in the 2002–2003 school year, the disproportionate number of race-related harassment incidents is truly alarming. Table 1 below shows the percentage of minority students in Vermont schools for the years 1993–2003.

2. Equally disturbing is data derived from the Vermont Department of Health’s 2001 Youth Risk Behavior Survey that indicates:

3. Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, reported that one-third of the public accommodations discrimination charges filed between fiscal years 1994 and 2002 were against schools, and nearly one-third of the 138 cases against schools were based on race.[5]

TABLE 1: Vermont Elementary and Secondary School Ethnic Enrollment, 1993–2003

School Year

































Source: Vermont Department of Education, “Elementary/Secondary Public School Enrollment (2002–2003 School Year),” Apr. 18, 2003, p. 4.

In the course of gathering information about racial harassment, the Committee received other data that speaks powerfully to problems of racism and racial harassment that are not confined to Vermont’s public schools.

4. According to then-Assistant Attorney General Katherine Hayes, in her annual report to the Vermont legislature on hate crimes investigations, 36 of 92 hate crimes reported through the Vermont Incident-Based Reporting System in 2001 were race related.[6]

5. The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity recently released a study on fair housing, indicating that 48 percent of African Americans participating in the study experienced some form of discrimination by Vermont real estate agents.[7]

6. The Vermont Center for Justice Research conducted research on disparities in criminal justice processing between minorities and whites. Initial findings indicate that African American males are 1.5 times more likely to be arrested in Vermont than white males.[8]

The emerging statistical evidence of racial harassment in schools is particularly significant, because the testimony published in the Committee’s 1999 Report was dismissed by some educators and legislators as “anecdotal” and unsubstantiated. It is clear to the Committee that racial harassment is a serious problem in Vermont. The hurt done to students of color was amply demonstrated in the heart-wrenching testimony of parents, students, teachers, and others who wrote or spoke to the Committee at its hearings in November 1997 (which formed the basis for its 1999 Report).

Early in 2002 therefore, the Committee began planning a follow-up project to determine what progress has been made and what problems and obstacles remain in addressing a serious social problem that undermines the quality of life and education for all Vermont students, not only those of color.

This report presents a summary of both the progress achieved since the release of the 1999 Report and problems that remain in addressing racial harassment. To provide a context, an overview of the 1999 Report and history of the Committee’s 2002 follow-up project are presented below.

The 1999 Report

Following a series of briefings with Vermont Department of Education officials, community groups, and parents between 1996 and 1997, the Committee held community forums in Burlington and Rutland on November 4 and 5, 1997. In order to receive information on racial harassment in schools, the Committee invited parents, students, teachers and administrators, and representatives of the Vermont Department of Education, the Vermont Human Rights Commission, the University of Vermont, and several community organizations. The Committee also received written submissions from several individuals both before and after the community forums. Presenters described public schools as unfriendly and hostile to others of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, a setting wherein racial slurs, epithets, and physical assaults occur and where many students experienced daily fear and feelings of being ostracized from the total school community. The information collected at these forums led the Committee to the conclusion 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 1999 Report incorporated written information from school administrators and education association officials as well as extensive research results on Vermont law and policy related to racial harassment and handling of harassment complaints by the Vermont Human Rights Commission.[9] The Committee made 17 recommendations that fall into six general categories: planning, publicity, training, enforcement, reporting, and staffing.[10]

The Committee is gratified that the report has made a remarkable impact since its release. As noted above, Act 120, passed by the legislature in 2000, incorporated many aspects of the Committee’s recommendations. The report was used as a primary reference document for legislators when Act 120 and Bill 113[11] were debated. Many advocacy organizations, parents, churches, educators, and business leaders requested the report, using it as reference document for events and discussions on race relations in the state. In response to these requests, approximately 3,000 copies of the report were distributed in Vermont. It is particularly noteworthy that high school and college teachers requested the report and used it as a textbook in courses on race issues. According to Reverend Gary Kowalski of the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Burlington, his congregation’s Anti-Racism Action Committee mailed a copy to every public school principal in the state.[12]

As a result of the Burlington Anti-Racism Coalition’s review of the 1999 Report, State Representative Mark Larson (Burlington) sponsored a bill in 2003 addressing racial harassment (H.113).[13] Although it did not make it out of committee, advocates are reworking the bill in hopes of introducing it next session.[14] Bill 113 is discussed more fully in part II of this report.

Development of the 2003 Progress Report

In April 2002, the Advisory Committee embarked upon a follow-up project to review efforts to address racial harassment in schools by the Vermont Department of Education, school personnel, community organizations, and business leaders. As originally conceived, the project aimed to collect statements from a wide variety of individuals familiar with the issue of racial harassment in Vermont schools and to conduct follow-up discussions as necessary. In developing its plans, the Committee felt it essential to hold several town hall meetings to hear directly from parents, students, teachers, and community leaders, as well as representatives of the Department of Education and other state agencies. Furthermore, members agreed that community forums had to be made more accessible to Vermont’s dispersed rural population than were the 1997 gatherings in Burlington and Rutland, the state’s two largest cities.

In order to provide a context and starting point for discussing the issues at the town hall meetings, the Committee decided to solicit input from as many persons as possible and release a statement of concern prior to public meetings. The Committee submitted written questions to 25 education agencies and community organizations, and received 21 written responses, including eight from school superintendents.[15] Based on the information it received, the Committee released a statement of concern in October 2002 (see appendix 3). The statement makes the following observations:

In order to collect information from a wide variety of sources, particularly parents and other community members, the Advisory Committee held two traditional town meetings (Burlington, November 2002, and Montpelier, April 2003) and a third one (February 2003) using Vermont Interactive Television (VIT) to make it possible for residents in mostly rural areas to participate.[16] VIT allowed persons to participate via live interactive video. At the town meetings, the Committee heard from teachers, administrators, parents, and other community members who wished to inform the Committee of progress and problems in addressing racial harassment in schools. These town meetings differed in some respects from the 1997 community forums, observing the practice of traditional Vermont town meetings of inviting testimony from any community member who wished to speak to the issues at hand. Information presented at these meetings and written submissions form the basis for this progress report.[17]

[1] Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools, February 1999, p. iii (hereafter cited as 1999 Report).

[2] Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 16, § 565 (2003).

[3] Vermont Department of Education, Safe and Healthy Schools Program, “Hazing and Harassment in Vermont Schools: 2000–2001 School Year vs. 2001–2002 School Year,” table submitted by Director Doug Dows, town hall meeting, Apr. 9, 2003.

[4] Kathy Johnson, director of equity initiatives, the Vermont Institutes, attachment to letter to Eric Sakai, chairperson, Vermont Advisory Committee, Oct. 11, 2003. The data cited was extrapolated by the information used to produce the Vermont Department of Health’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2001, <www.state.vt.us/health/adap/pubs/2001/yrbs2001.pdf>.

[5] Robert Appel, executive director, Vermont Human Rights Commission, “Public Accommodations Discrimination Charges Against Schools, FY94 to FY02,” table submitted by Robert Appel, town hall meeting, Apr. 9, 2003.

[6] Katherine Hayes, former assistant attorney general for civil rights, Office of the Attorney General, “Report to the Vermont Legislature–Hate Crimes,” Feb. 7, 2002, p. 5.

[7] Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity–Fair Housing Project, “A Real Estate Sales Practices Audit: Fair Housing Law Compliance in Vermont,” April 2003, p. 5, <http://www.cvoeo.org/vti/sales_audit_report4-03.pdf>.

[8] William Clements, executive director, Vermont Center for Justice Research, “Exploring the Dynamics of Race and Crime Using Vermont NIBRS Data: Executive Summary,” January 2003, p. 2. For the complete study, see <http://www.state.vt.us/ atg/Race%20and%20Crime%20Study.pdf>. In March 2003, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office announced its plans to take action to address racial bias issues in the law enforcement community. See <http://www.state.vt.us/atg/press03112003.htm>.

[9] The process by which the Committee developed its report is described in chapter 1 of the 1999 Report, pp. 1–4.

[10] The full text of the February 1999 report’s conclusions and recommendations appears in appendix 2 of this report.

[11] H.R. 113, 2003–2004 Legis. Sess. (Vt. 2003).

[12] Rev. Gary Kowalski, First Unitarian Universalist Society, letter to Marc Pentino, Eastern Regional Office, USCCR, Sept. 17, 2002.

[13] H.R. 113, 2003–2004 Legis. Sess. (Vt. 2003).

[14] On August 26, 2003, Rep. Mark Larson convened a meeting of three House members, educators, deputy chiefs from the Burlington Police Department, and civil rights advocates to discuss building support for the bill. Robert Appel, director, Vermont Human Rights Commission, e-mail to Marc Pentino, Eastern Regional Office, USCCR, May 23, 2003.

[15] Many of these responses included extensive documentation of programs and activities that address diversity and harassment issues, and some presented data on harassment incidents in individual school districts and for all Vermont schools that submitted reports. Appendix 4 lists persons and organizations that received the Committee’s questions.

[16] The six interactive television sites participating were Brattleboro, Colchester, Newport, Randolph Center, Rutland, and St. Albans.

[17] The 2002–03 town meetings differed from the earlier community forums in that oral testimony was not transcribed. Therefore, full transcriptions of that testimony do not appear in this report. However, written statements submitted to the Committee are available upon request from the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office.