Editor’s note: this story was also published on VTDigger, through the Underground Workshop.
Growing up in Derby Vermont, Brian Smith said the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school, in the classroom, in assemblies, in the gym, and at award ceremonies. Today, he says it at the beginning of each House session.
As a Representative, Smith finds it troubling that fewer students today say the Pledge. “We’ve kind of lost our spirit in America,” he said. Last month, he introduced legislation which he hopes will help to rebuild that spirit.
His proposed legislation is short and simple. The bill, H.92, would “prohibit flags other than the U.S. flag and State of Vermont flag from being flown on public school property in Vermont.”
This has been interpreted by some as a direct response to Black Lives Matter and Pride flags being raised by school districts across the state.
Representative Smith said his bill is not targeted at Black Lives Matter, which he sees as a good organization. The legislation, according to Smith, was introduced to make the point that “we’re all Americans.”
“I have absolutely no problem about whatever kind of a flag anybody wants to fly,” he said, naming Black Lives Matter, POW-MIA, and Pride flags. “I don’t think the American flag flying on a public school needs to be tarnished by any other flag being flown under it other than a perhaps a state of Vermont flag.”
Representative Brian Smith
Smith said he had experienced a generational divide. He said that many veterans support his bill, but he mostly sees opposition from younger people. Despite this, he said he believes that most of his constituents support the bill, but said it could be as close as “51% and 49%.”
“I’m hearing from a younger group of folks, you know, from, you know, running from seventh, eighth, ninth grades to senior year,” Smith said. “I think kids today have a little bit of a different look at America.”
Some students would agree with him.
On February 3rd, less than two weeks after the bill was introduced, students from eleven schools across the state gathered on a Zoom forum organized by U-32 High School’s student group, Seeking Social Justice. An invite to the event sent by Meg Allison, U-32’s librarian and the advisor for U-32’s Seeking Social Justice group, framed the forum as a response to Smith’s bill:“… H.92 doesn’t stand a chance when there’s a groundswell of support for flying inclusive flags.”
At the forum students and former students representing 11 schools discussed the Black Lives Matter and Pride flags and barriers to raising them at schools.
They also talked about steps their schools had taken to continue anti-racism work after the flags had been raised.
Montpelier High School alumnus Noel Williams-Riby was instrumental in raising the Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School in 2018. She feels proud, she said, every time she drives past the school and sees the flag.
Some students attend schools that have not raised one or either of the flags yet. A student from Mount Mansfield said that her school flies the Black Lives Matter flag, but not the Pride flag. Flying the flags, she said, reinforces the idea that students will be safe at school.
“Equality is not about politicization, but about rights,” another student said.
Some students had also emailed members of the legislature, asking them to oppose the bill. The emails were adapted from a press release written by U-32 junior Abby Brown, who wrote that “limiting the flags to just the Vermont state flag and the United States flag is a deliberate effort to silence our voices.”
When schools raise the flag, U-32 junior Eva Goodwin wrote in her email to legislators, they are also “raising the conversation about race and racism within our schools.”
She said that rather than creating unity, the bill would do the opposite.
Some representatives responded with messages in support of the students. Representative Avram Patt, a Democrat who represents the Lamoille-Washington district, wrote that he would be surprised if Smith’s bill left the House Education Committee. “But if it did, I will oppose it,” he said.
Other representatives disagreed with the students.
Representative Robert Helm, a Republican who has co-sponsored the bill, responded with an email of his own. Helm noted that flags including those of the military and American Legion would also be banned.
“You folks need to grow up and realize that the world is made from more than your special interests,” he wrote. “Please get real.”
Helm, a Vietnam veteran, later apologized for these comments in an email written to U-32 Seeking Social Justice’s Abby Brown and teacher-librarian Meg Allison on February 27th.
“That was not very statesmanlike,” he wrote. Helm also reiterated that he held the same position.
The bill is important “not because we dislike something,” he wrote, “it is created to ease the time and social burden on administrating schools.
“I am sorry if you don’t agree with my position, but you have yours and I have mine,” he wrote. “Thank you and again this is an apology to you for telling you to grow up.”
Marcia Martel, a Republican representative from Caledonia and co-sponsor of the bill, also pushed back on the students in a brief email. “Actually,” she wrote, “it is only respect to our nation’s flag and our state.”
Freshman Republican Representative Arthur Peterson is another co-sponsor of H.92. He engendered controversy last year over comments made as a candidate. At the time there was a proposal to raise the Pride and Black Lives Matter flags in Mill River’s school district, in Clarendon, one of the towns he now represents.
Peterson helped to organize a petition, arguing that the decision to fly the flags should have been put to a townwide vote. He was quoted in a Rutland Herald article on July 23 of last year, describing Black Lives Matter as “a symbol of an organization with Marxist roots,” and “a symbol of an organization that’s continually involved with violence.”
On February 3rd, Peterson responded by email to questions about his earlier comments.
“The two flags you mention which were proposed in the Mill River school district last year are divisive,” he said. “And send a political message that I felt had no place on a flagpole on public school property.”
There appears to be some distance between some co-sponsors of H.92 and Representative Smith, who introduced the bill.
While Peterson has described BLM as “an organization that’s continually involved with violence,” Representative Smith said that he views Black Lives Matter as a good organization, rather than a violent one.
Given that the House Education Committee is mostly run by Democrats, and members including the Chair have expressed opposition to the bill, it is unlikely to reach the House floor.
Representative Smith isn’t sure whether it will go anywhere, but he hopes that it does.
Though he acknowledges that there is some opposition to the bill, Rep. Smith said that he has received many emails of support from around the state thanking him for standing up for the American flag.
“Some people don’t mind the flags being flown underneath the American flag, some people do,” he said. “But with the American flag being flown solely, it’s going to eliminate that discussion.”
Some students don’t want the discussion eliminated.
“The decision to raise the BLM flag or any other flag should be left up to individual schools and school boards,” U-32’s Abby Brown said. The bill, she said, has created conversations around hate symbols and racism at U-32.
Flying the flag, she said, “has changed our school for the better.”