GM board hears of racial bias incidents; reinstates Chieftain name 8th grader, family tell of school inaction; board considers rebranding 'Chieftains'

By Shawn Cunningham
©2023 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In an emotionally charged meeting Thursday night, the board of the Green Mountain Unified School District heard from an 8th grade student and her grandmother who said that stress from racism that the girl has experienced since coming to the school last year has gotten to the point where the girl has considered harming herself.

Beverly Hart of Chester, right, speaks on behalf of her granddaughter. Click any image to launch gallery. ON THE COVER: The Hazen-Hart family at the Thursday school board meeting.<small>All photos by Cynthia Prairie.</small>

Beverly Hart of Chester, right, speaks on behalf of her granddaughter. Click any image to launch gallery. ON THE COVER: The Hazen-Hart family at the Thursday school board meeting.All photos by Cynthia Prairie.

However, a large portion of the extended public comment period was taken up by people who demanded that the school rescind its decision to retire the Chieftains name, which the board ultimately decided to do to allow for more public input or to “rebrand” the name Chieftains.

But first, Chester resident Beverly Hart came before the board to tell them that since her granddaughter Honore began attending the GM middle school, she has experienced a number of incidents of racist bullying — including being called the n-word by a student and seeing it written on the wall in the band room bathroom  and on school bus seats.

“I want something done, stand up for her,” a visibly angry Hart told the school board. “If it doesn’t happen here, I’m willing to go further. I’m telling you, it’s not right. It’s wrong. There should be zero tolerance for this at Green Mountain, but there’s not. I want some help.”

Hart said that she, her daughter Kate and Honore have gone through the process to report the incidents to school officials but those reports haven’t gone up the chain, even to the point that Honore’s teachers were not aware of them. She said that she had received a single correspondence — from Associate Principal Ananda Donohue — that said that if she was not satisfied she could “see Meg Powden,” the former superintendent who left that role in June 2020.

“I suggest you update your form letters,” Hart said pointedly.

Honore Hazen reads a letter she sent to Gov. Phil Scott about the racial incidents she has endured at Green Mountain.

Honore Hazen reads a letter she sent to Gov. Phil Scott about the racial incidents she has endured at Green Mountain.

After Hart spoke, Honore, who identifies as Black, stood to read a letter she wrote to Gov. Phil Scott telling him of “racial jokes, writing … inappropriate things” that she is subjected to every week. “It’s embarrassing to have to continuously report these incidents … I was first exposed to major racism in the seventh grade at Green Mountain and it just kept on going.”

In spite of all of this, Honore wrote, she is trying to be a good student and keep up her grades since she is a school athlete. “But this has affected me personally in a negative way for far too long and I need this to stop.”  When she finished reading the letter, the board and audience applauded.

The letter that Honore wrote to Gov. Phil Scott. Click to enlarge.

The letter that Honore wrote to Gov. Phil Scott. Click to enlarge.

“I think you’re very brave,” said board member Dennis Reilly, who added that he has “three grandchildren of color.” “What are we doing about this? This is unacceptable.”

Superintendent Lauren Fierman said in instances like this, the staff needs to “behave as though the school is on fire.”

“I want an immediate response,” said Fierman, who added that she and other staff members could not discuss the particulars of these kinds of cases in public due to privacy policies, but the school’s response should make the person who is being bullied feel safe and secure. “And that has not happened and it needs to happen,” she said.

“That has not happened for almost two years so I find it hard to believe it’s going to. I feel like you’re tolerating it,” said Hart.

Fierman replied, “I am completely OK with a headline that says we go too far to protect the rights of our students. I am not OK with one that says we’re not.”

“Well you better get ready, because that’s coming,” said Hart. “For a year and five months you have not provided Honore a comfortable and safe place to learn and I think you should pay for her to go somewhere else if you can’t provide it here.”

Board chair Joe Fromberger said he wanted a report from the administration before the next board meeting so that he could send it to board members in confidence. But Fromberger balked at the suggestion that the board include a discussion of the issue – with Honore and Hart in attendance – in the scheduled executive session.

That session was to discuss security or emergency response measures at the schools. Board members argued that bullying is a public safety issue while Fierman suggested it could be done in a separate session under another exemption to meet outside the public view.

Fromberger maintained that the bullying did not fit in the discussion of emergency response and that they could not hold an unwarned executive session. The board voted to overrule him, inviting Honore and her family into the closed door discussion at the end of the regular meeting.

‘Unretiring’ the Chieftain

More than two dozen people showed up to call for the reinstatement of the name “Chieftain,” which was retired by the board at its January meeting. The image of a Native American in a Plains Indian headdress was retired in October 2021.

Amber Wilson reads her statement on changing her mind on the 'Chieftains' name.

Amber Wilson reads her statement on changing her mind on the ‘Chieftains’ name.

Amber Wilson, the board’s recording secretary,  refers to herself as a proud Native American and, in the past, has spoken forcefully in favor of keeping the Chieftain. But on Thursday night, she stood to say that hearing from other Native Americans who are offended by the mascot was the beginning of her changing her mind on the issue. She noted that a mascot should be a uniting symbol, but this has become divisive and it is time to retire it, but not delete it from the history of the school.

“You can always be Chieftains if you choose,” said Wilson.

She did criticize the board’s move to retire the name without warning the vote so that the public could have input and agreed with board member Adrienne William’s comment that she felt ambushed by having a vote on the name during a routine vote on school policies.

Ludlow resident Otis Nelson presented Fromberger with a petition taken online with 531 signatures asking for the Chieftain name to be reinstated. He told Fromberger that 40 of those signatures were from students.

“I don’t see anything wrong with the name,” said Nelson, “I understand that the logo may be offensive to some, but the name is not offensive.”

Board member Deb Brown speaks to the board about the original vote. Board member Adrienne Williams, is to her right.

Board member Deb Brown speaks to the board about the original vote. Board member Adrienne Williams, is to her right.

Board members Deb Brown and Williams moved to rescind the vote to retire the name and to have a public discussion and vote again at a later date. Williams noted that there is no enforcement clause in the state law that requires schools to drop mascots that are racist or offensive, so the board need not worry about any penalties while it hears from the public.

Brown noted that in January, the board was approving a policy regarding mascots and the vote should not have been taken then.

Fromberger informed the board that the Rutland Chapter of the NAACP and a Native American organization called Gedakina have filed a complaint with the Vermont Agency of Education citing the Chieftain name as a violation of the state statute. Fierman said she has replied to the complaint, adding that it contained information that was out of date and incorrect.

The motion was dropped to allow public comment to continue and, after a long discussion, parent M.J. Miles suggested that since companies rebrand themselves, the school could rebrand the Chieftain.

Jean Blanchard tells the board that her nephews played under the Chieftains name and she would like to see it continue.

Jean Blanchard tells the board that her nephews played under the Chieftains name and she would like to see it continue.

Resident Jean Blanchard told the board that her nephews had played sports under the Chieftain mascot and that this action was breaking her heart. “The least you can do is leave the name,” she said.

And student Conner Miles, who also plays sports at GM, told the board that school spirit at the games has declined.

Making a motion to rescind the Jan. 19 vote, Williams said she thought it was possible to rebrand the name, but warned that the board should not “set and forget.” Williams said the school should work on it and then, addressing the audience said they should “support our students with the same passion” that they showed for the Chieftain.

The motion passed on a vote of 6-4.

Later in the meeting, student school board representative Marlayna King chided the board for rescinding the earlier vote and suggested that the issue will come up in the future.

The entire comment period was interesting because the board – after several training sessions on the role of the board with the Vermont School Boards Association – had adopted the stance that it would listen but not respond to public comment.

Declining enrollment and building usage

Under new business, Fierman noted that while the enrollment for Chester-Andover Elementary and Green Mountain High will decline marginally next year, the Cavendish Elementary student population is expected to drop by more than a 25 percent – from 88 students to 65.

She said it was time for the board to begin figuring out how to best utilize the district’s three buildings and that they should start holding extra meetings to talk about options for fiscal 2024-25. Fierman said – several times – that any changes are not for next year and that she hopes the public shows up for those meetings rather than after the fact.

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  1. Tamasin Kekic says:

    Honore is an incredibly brave and courageous leader to persist in seeking safety beyond the repeated inaction of the school and district required to protect her. This inaction for 1.5 years is inexcusable. GMUHS and TRSU you must do better. How are GM students expected to learn anti-racist behaviors and actions that protect one another’s civil rights, if the adults that are hired and elected to enforce these rights through federal and state laws, are not modeling such action?

  2. Victoria Gardner says:

    If you’re going to say people who want to keep a racist team name deserve empathy, we should also ask them why they had no empathy for a child subjected to the very racism their decision validated.

  3. Tim Roper says:

    I have the impression that few who attempt to use the term, “woke” as an insult have thought to seek a definition of the word. Here’s mine: Woke- one who is empathetic toward all, is socially conscious and works to keep themselves informed.

    For those identifying as being woke, please remember that empathy toward all includes those who push your buttons. Anger only serves to broaden the divide while attempting to understand and empathize is a path to finding common ground.

  4. Victoria Gardner says:

    Using “woke” as a pejorative is a dog whistle. Be weary of people who dwell on their fear of the “woke” rather than trying to think of a reasonable solution. It’s a team name for a child’s sports team, not the Rosetta stone. I think some people are too sensitive to this kind of change, even when it has already been changed before. This is so far beyond what sports is supposed to be about, and whatever good intentions people had for keeping the name is lost in insulting others who may disagree with them. What is being fostered in keeping the name other than tribalism & division? Are we sure this is the kind of thing that makes Vermont, Vermont?

  5. Kathy Bentley says:

    I attended Chester High School before it became GMUHS. I was one of the students back then who voted against the name Chieftains. I didn’t feel then, and still don’t, that it reflected the community. Has anyone considered going back to the name Spartans? According to Merriam Webster a Spartan is a person of great courage and self-discipline. Wouldn’t those be values we want out students to demonstrate.

  6. Evan Parks says:

    It is deeply disappointing to read that so many people in our small community are apparently still choosing racism, inaction, mulishness, and an ugly, racist, caricature of a mascot in these modern times.

    My heart goes out to this girl, and her family, our community has failed her, and my heart also to all of the indigenous people that this offensive mascot has demeaned and belittled over these many years.

    I hope that those folks who apparently don’t yet know better, can find a way to see these racist actions, and inactions, from the point of view of the people that they are hurting, and then choose love, and compassion, instead of foolish pride.

    A mascot is meant to unite, not divide.
    A school is meant to nurture, not neglect.
    A community should be a place where we look out for the least of us, above our own selfish interests.

    We can do better. We must do better.

  7. George Timko says:

    There are albums by the ‘Chieftains’ – an Irish band. Webster Dictionary defines the Middle English word as ‘a captain – a leader of a clan..’. Drop the picture/headdress obviously, but the term is not racist. People are going woke crazy. Are we soon to ban Fire CHIEF or CHIEF of police? Those terms are not derogatory. Common sense, please.
    If you need a cause to channel your anger, go confront the racist students at Green Mountain High.

  8. Martha Mott says:

    In reference to the student population at Cavendish Town Elementary School- That seems like a big drop in students and I would like to know where the numbers of students came from.
    Concerning the Chieftain name consider changing to The Green “Mountain Lions”. Chieftains is honorable , yet so divisive and students can’t fully get behind the mascot.
    And by all means, please protect the student who is being bullied. There should be no tolerance for that.

  9. Willy Williams says:

    I would like to comment on the little girl that has been experiencing racism at GM. People it is 2023 this should be 100% unacceptable and the students that are participating in this behavior should be expelled from the school. I can’t believe that this has been happening for over a year.

    I went to GM and now live in the south. My daughter goes to a high school that has a population of about 50% white and 50% black and Hispanic kids. If this happened in her school, first the white kids doing it would get there butts kicked. And second the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) would have filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit that would bankrupt the school district, if the school didn’t stop it immediately. Third there is a ZERO tolerance policy for racism and the kids would have been expelled after an internal and external law enforcement investigation found evidence of the behavior.

    There is absolutely no place for this behavior in the world today and GM is lucky Mrs Hart came to the board with this without a lawyer and before she filed a lawsuit. Kids of Green Mountain you can do better. It’s a big world outside of little VT and if you are growing up as racist little punks, just remember when you get out of VT there is much more diversity and you will be in the minority.

    If you were to use the N-word toward someone in South Carolina to bully them, I can guarantee it would be the last time you ever used that word. Whoever this was reported to should have immediately gone to administration and administration should have immediately reported it to the superintendent.

    As for the Chieftain. It is what it is. The world is changing and GM definitely needs a little shaking up. I still have my Chieftain uniforms from my senior year. But I have Zero attachment. It’s the perfect time for GM to set an example and start a new chapter.

    Finally if you read this Mrs Hart, just contact Rutland Chapter of the NAACP and I bet once they come down to GM and stand with you and your granddaughter something will be done and your granddaughter won’t be subject to anymore racist behavior.

  10. Svetlana Phillips says:

    Honore Hazen is a brave girl. Unfortunately, bullying doesn’t start with children in schools, it starts with adults at home.

  11. i would LOVE to make 2 comments. only ONE is allowed.
    this comment addresses the “RASCIST” whining over
    a symbol of a school “mascot”. it was fine and dandy for decades. then some idle minded, “WOKE drone”, begins to make waves. a symbol that “offends” him/her. the bruhaha begins with the “WEAK of Sprit” and common sense” to appease. (i call them “Yuppies”). someone says something. and then the “YUPPIES” all chime in, saying.”Oh yup, Yup, YUP”. to them i say, STHU and go get a life”…
    plz tell Me. WHEN did America begin to raise an entire Herd of, “Pansies” ?

  12. Victoria Gardner says:

    It’s really disappointing that a racist team name couldn’t be changed. Meanwhile I’m still seeing kids walking from home school on the side of the road because we still don’t have many sidewalks. I can’t imagine prioritizing something racist over basic child safety. I can’t imagine disregarding the pain of those who are hurt by racism, just because you love a silly little drawing too much. Bob Dylan wrote a song that I will quote here.

    “Come mothers and fathers
    Throughout the land
    And don’t criticize
    What you can’t understand
    Your sons and your daughters
    Are beyond your command
    Your old road is rapidly agin’
    Please get out of the new one
    If you can’t lend your hand
    For the times they are a-changin'”