Letter of Transmittal
Vermont Advisory Committee to
the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
Members of the Commission
Mary Frances Berry, Chairperson
Cruz Reynoso, Vice Chairperson
Jennifer C. Braceras
Christopher Edley, Jr.
Peter N. Kirsanow
Elsie M. Meeks
Russell G. Redenbaugh
Les Jin, Staff Director
The Vermont Advisory Committee submits this report, Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools: A Progress Report, as part of its responsibility to advise the Commission on civil rights issues in the state. The Committee approved this report in a vote of 13 to 0, 1 abstention.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the Committee received allegations that a racially hostile environment and discrimination were widespread throughout the state’s school system. Despite state law requiring local school boards to adopt policies and procedures to address harassment, many did not comply. Following a two-day forum in November 1997 designed to address these issues, the Committee released its report, Racial Harassment in Vermont Public Schools, in February 1999. Concluding that racial harassment was both frequent and common across all grade levels and that school personnel were ill equipped and poorly trained to respond appropriately to incidents, the Committee recommended sweeping changes requiring action by the Vermont Department of Education (VDOE), local school boards, and public officials. Once released, the report resonated within the civil rights community and served as a definitive reference on the topic. In the years after the report’s release, a groundswell of positive activity occurred through advocacy organizations, education officials, church groups, and parents to better monitor school tension, ensure safe learning environments, and act upon the Committee’s recommendations. A few examples include:
Former Governor Howard Dean’s pledge to create a statewide tone condemning racism in Vermont schools and communities. This was followed by the unprecedented acknowledgement by former VDOE commissioner Mark Hull that harassment exists in the schools and that state agencies should coordinate their efforts to eliminate hazing and bullying and to address safety concerns.
Enactment of a new state law, modeled after many of the Committee’s recommendations, requiring school boards to adopt model harassment and hazing prevention policies.
Creation of a School Civility Project by VDOE to address harassment and discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, or ability in the schools.
Renewed commitment and coordination among state education associations for corrective measures to ease school tensions, including workshops sponsored by association members to teach greater tolerance and sensitivity to racial issues.
Community organization and church group meetings, seminars, training, and follow-up forums throughout the state devoted to the topics of racial harassment and overall race relations.
Despite this positive momentum, the Committee learned that problems reported in its 1999 report persisted. For instance, students of color reported higher incidences of physical fights and stolen or damaged property than white students. The Committee also learned of severe harassment cases, including those in which school officials failed to respond or took inappropriate remedial action.
The Committee decided to follow up on its 1999 report to (1) inform the public, state officials, and civil rights advocates of the continuing problem of racism in Vermont; (2) identify current efforts to address racial harassment and racism in the state; and (3) identify successful exemplary programs and their components that could be replicated and expanded. To collect needed information, the Committee solicited written responses to questions posed to 25 education agencies, officials, and community activists. Based on the information it received, the Committee released a statement of concern in October 2002 to serve as a starting point for future discussion. It subsequently held three “town meetings” between November 2002 and April 2003, including one using interactive television, to hear directly from the approximately 160 parents, students, educators, public officials, and community leaders in attendance.
Based on this information and supplemental research, the Committee prepared this progress report summarizing written submissions and oral presentations, concluding that:
State agencies, schools, and community organizations have undertaken exemplary efforts to make the elimination of racial harassment a statewide priority. They held major conferences and teacher training on diversity and anti-racism issues, lobbied the legislature for additional resources and anti-harassment measures, and assigned staff to begin working on the problem.
A coordinated, statewide plan to address the problem is needed, as well as comprehensive collection and analysis of harassment data.
Fiscal constraints limit the ability of VDOE and the Vermont Human Rights Commission (VHRC) to develop statewide prevention programs or intervene on behalf of victims and help schools resolve recurring problems.
The Committee is concerned about reports of minority students changing school districts or moving out of the state because of intolerance they encounter in their schools and communities. It hopes that Vermont will strive to be a desirable and welcoming place to live for people of all backgrounds. To help prevent future harassment in schools, reduce general intolerance toward minorities throughout the state, and make Vermont a safe and hospitable place for all, the Committee recommends:
Clear, enforced standards mandating remedial action or penalties for students who commit harassment and school personnel who do not comply with state law.
Employees in each school designated and trained to receive and investigate harassment complaints.
More funding for VDOE and VHRC to accomplish their missions.
Continued coordination between civil rights groups, educators, and the public.
The Committee believes this progress report will help the public better understand the continuing problem of racial harassment in schools, identify positive steps taken to remedy the problem, and clarify areas requiring additional effort. The Committee also issues this report to acknowledge the hard work of many Vermonters to address racial harassment in schools.
Eric D. Sakai, Chairperson
Vermont Advisory Committee