Governor, education chief speak out about school unity, challenges
by Lauren Harkawik
Oct 16, 2017 | 2334 views | 0 0 comments | 136 136 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Gov. Phil Scott, center, was surrounded by students from Dover and Wardsboro during a recent visit to launch the new River Valleys school district.
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VERMONT- Two letters were distributed at the October 2 Dover School Board’s meeting. Both were sent to Vermont’s educators and spoke about making Vermont’s students feel safe amid charged political climates. One was from Gov. Phil Scott, and the other was from Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe.

Together, the letters provide a striking glimpse at the issues facing educators and students alike in today’s political atmosphere.

“In recent days, I’ve heard from many Vermonters concerned about President Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Executive Order, signed by President Barack Obama in 2012, and how the decision will affect Dreamers living in Vermont,” reads the opening to Scott’s letter.

Scott explains that while the decision creates uncertainty, there are statutes that protect Dreamers’ ability to attend public school. “That said,” Scott writes, “protections around the right to an education and empathy from public leaders for these young people does not go far enough if they still face the risk of deportation when they are not at school.”

Scott says in the letter that he has called on Congress to act to keep DACA in place through federal legislation. “Something the president did not leave open as a possibility,” writes Scott. “I feel strongly that this outcome is the only way to ensure we protect the rights of young people, who were brought to the US at a young age through no fault of their own, and know no other country.”

The subject line of Holcombe’s letter was “Responding to Bigotry.”

“Many of you have expressed concern about how, given some of the toxicity in language and action in our public spaces, you can make sure all of our Vermont children feel safe and supported,” writes Holcombe. “Many of you have also spoken about the challenge of maintaining a strong sense of community, given polarization.”

Holcombe writes that her commitment to making sure Vermont’s children feel safe and supported is rooted in her own experience of needing to feel safe. She describes a harrowing event from her childhood, when she was attending school in Pakistan. Around the same time the US Embassy in Iran was seized, Holcombe writes, a political demonstration occurred at the US Embassy in Pakistan, across the street from Holcombe’s school, which went into lockdown.

“For over five hours, a mob stormed the embassy, breaking down walls and eventually burning it to the ground,” writes Holcombe. “Meanwhile, angry demonstrators roamed the capital, looking for other American targets, and the school was the most visible.”

A parent and a few others stood guard outside the school auditorium, where the students were gathered. Holcombe writes that the guards were “armed with only hockey sticks, an abundance of courage, and a determination to protect the children inside.”

The group guarding the auditorium was met with the demonstrators. “They deterred the mob by wielding nothing more than the power to shame those who would hurt children,” writes Holcombe. “Though much of the school property was damaged, the auditorium where children huddled stayed safe.”

Holcombe writes that she shares the story because it taught her much of what she knows about educators and about people. She says the incident taught her how brave educators can be, how people from different nations and different faiths were willing to take enormous personal risks to protect one another, and how much strength can be found in working together.

“I learned that we can reasonably disagree,” writes Holcombe, “but having seen war up close, I can tell you there is no place in a democracy for using the language of violence and hatred against our own citizens.”

Holcombe writes that in recent months, several educators have expressed concern about a fragmentation of a sense of shared civic purpose.

“We read different papers, we have different cultural tastes, we react differently to the news,” says Holcombe. “At the same time, our schools have always played - and will continue to play - an essential role in exposing our students to people from different backgrounds, perspectives, and circumstances, and teaching them to work together as members of a pluralist democracy with a shared interest in civic well-being and economic prosperity. Democracy is a team sport. It is not something we do on our own, by only focusing on ourselves. It is something we do together.”

Holcombe goes on to recall several recent news stories in which educators were faced with situations in which students committed racist and hateful acts against one another. In each of them, educators responded swiftly, showing they had no tolerance for racist acts and imbuing their students with lessons of unity.

“Our children do things that fill us with pride and optimism: they support each other, solve complex problems, and surprise us with their minds,” says Holcombe. “Occasionally, they do something that makes us shake our heads, wonder what the world is coming to, and despair.

“We can support all our children together, here in our schools, or we will pay the price of inequality for the rest of their lives.”
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