At Peoples Academy, allegations of ‘systemic’ racist bullying

Complaints of racist bullying at Peoples Academy in Morrisville spilled into public view last week, when a parent spoke at a school board meeting of the alleged abuse her child had endured. File photo

Students of color at Peoples Academy and Peoples Academy Middle Level in Morristown have endured longstanding racist harassment and bullying, parents say. 

A group of families has been in touch with district officials in the past weeks over multiple incidents at the school, according to parents and administrators. But the allegations were made public at a Wednesday meeting of the Lamoille South Unified Union school board, where a parent said her children have experienced “profound systemic racism” at the schools. 

“Our BIPOC community of students are missing not days, not just weeks, but (sometimes) collectively over a month of school, due to anxiety, fear, and a feeling of (being) unsafe in the building,” said Cassie Baronette, the mother of three students of color at Peoples Academy and Peoples Academy Middle Level. 

Baronette declined to speak in detail about specific incidents, citing her children’s privacy, but said they had been targeted by “overt and horrifying racism.”

It’s not clear exactly how many families have experienced similar incidents. In correspondence shared with VTDigger, Lamoille South Superintendent Ryan Heraty mentioned meeting with at least six families to discuss concerns about racist incidents. 

Baronette declined to be interviewed on the record. VTDigger spoke with three other people who said their children or relatives have had similar experiences at the school, either during the current school year or in the past. 

“It’s been very bad,” said Carol Rogers, whose child attends sixth grade at Peoples Academy Middle Level. 

Her son has experienced verbal abuse, racial slurs, and even physical violence at the school and on the bus, Rogers said. He has missed months’ worth of academic material, Rogers said, because he often dreads going to class in the morning. 

“I’ve heard about it in other states, but I really never thought that it would be this bad in Vermont,” Rogers said. 

Amy Gates, whose daughter graduated from Peoples Academy four years ago, echoed those concerns. Her daughter also experienced racism at the school, she said, but she acknowledged she did not know the specific details.

“Four years later, she still can’t talk about some of the things that happened there,” Gates told school board members last week.  

At the board meeting, parents asked for more targeted district policies — and more robust enforcement — to prevent racist abuse at school. 

“Racial harm is being reinforced and perpetuated by our administration, because there is no clear separate policy for dealing with this specific type of abuse,” Baronette told school board members. “Your bullying, hazing and harassment policy does not adequately address this.”

Peoples Academy serves students in grades 9-12, and is physically connected to Peoples Academy Middle Level, which operates grades 5-8.

In an interview, Heraty, the Lamoille South superintendent, acknowledged “that there are situations that are happening in our district, specifically at that one school — Peoples Academy Middle Level — that aren’t OK, that we need to be talking about openly,” he said. 

The district has organized equity initiatives since 2020, when officials commissioned a report on the experiences of students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities.

That report, released in 2021, drove home the fact that some students in the district felt “a lack of safety, both social-emotional safety and physical safety.” Racist harassment often went unnoticed or was chalked up to “misunderstandings,” the report read, leaving students of color feeling they had little recourse to respond.

“It is increasingly clear that there is direct harm being caused to students with historically marginalized identities while attending schools in (the district),” the report said. 

In the wake of that report, the district formed an “equity subcommittee” that meets monthly. This year, Heraty said, the committee has focused on hazing, harassment and bullying in middle school. 

But changing the school’s policies is easier said than done, he said. In Vermont, school policies on harassment and bullying are usually, if not always, based closely on model policies released by the Vermont School Boards Association.

Those policies are “written by attorneys very carefully to adhere to the legislation that was approved by the state,” Heraty said. “So I think for us to change or revise those policies is very difficult.”

At the meeting Wednesday, the chair of the Lamoille South school board, David Bickford, thanked parents for bringing the concerns to the district. 

The board would discuss the district’s equity initiatives “to see if the kinds of safeguards that you’re asking about and asking for are incorporated in them,” he said. “And we will review them in light of this conversation.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: At Peoples Academy, allegations of ‘systemic’ racist bullying.