Although Black Lives Matter flags displayed in Wellesley buildings earlier this year—first at the middle school, followed by Wellesley High School—received little attention outside the school community, the subsequent introduction of such flags at the elementary and pre-K levels has triggered a response from those who say the banners have no place in the public schools.
A letter to The Swellesley Report editors equates the BLM flag with anti-Semitism. The 50 signers call for the flags to be removed from the Wellesley Public Schools saying, “…recent crimes against Jews have been a direct result of BLM’s political and violent rhetoric. Physical assaults against Jewish people have been reported to authorities in, just to name a few, California, Arizona, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Florida. The BLM flags cause a lot of fear for Jewish students, and that should not be tolerated…we do not seek to take the flags down because we do not believe in the fundamental cause of liberty for everyone. We seek to take them down because they are political in nature and are divisive.”
School administrators say that a history of systemic racism against Black Americans is reason enough to keep the flags as a way to communicate to their Black students, faculty, and staff that their presence is valued.
BLM vs. BLM
Wellesley Public Schools Superintendent Dr. David Lussier makes a distinction between the Black Lives Matter organization and the flags that have been raised in the schools.
Lussier said in an email, “The decision to display Black Lives Matter flags at any of our schools has been the result of conversations at those schools among staff and parents. (And students at the secondary level.) There is no district-wide mandate that this must be done, but we fully support this practice. We don’t see this as any type of political statement but rather a reinforcement of our belief in the dignity and safety of our Black students, staff, and families. This is also not an endorsement of the political organization of the same name (which has a different logo.)”
Lussier says the Wellesley Public Schools have worked closely over the years with the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of antisemitism and bigotry. The organization has expanded its mission over the years to include exposing extremism, delivering anti-bias education, and fighting hate online. The Wellesley Public Schools report to the ADL incidents of antisemitism that have occurred in the district. The ADL uses the information, along with that from schools and organizations across the country, to track trends.
“The ADL takes a similar approach to BLM,” Lussier continued, “and does not consider the flag nor the slogan to be antisemitic. Like WPS, the ADL views the BLM sign as an affirmation of support for the Black community and draws a distinction between this broader social movement and the specific agenda of the BLM political organization.”
Wellesley’s banners and flags
Black Lives Matter activities have picked up in Wellesley over the past few years, from the installation of yard signs to the organization of vigils and protests. This has included Wellesley High School students walking out of classes in a 2019 protest organized by Young Ethnic Scholars. Then in May 2020, hundreds filled the streets of Wellesley to protest against injustice and police brutality after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis.
Black Lives Matter and We Believe Black Lives Matter or We Believe That Black Lives Matter banners started appearing in school buildings earlier this year, initially at Wellesley Middle School and Wellesley High.
Wellesley High School Principal Jamie Chisum in a letter to the WHS community wrote in March, “So, this week we put up the donated flag in our cafeteria. We believe in black lives matter and that is what this flag represents. Our flag does not advocate for any political position or agenda. It does not mean only black lives matter, but that black lives matter as well. The raising of this flag breathes life into all four of our Core Values: Respect for Human Differences, Cooperative and Caring Relationships, Commitment to Community, and Academic Excellence. We clearly must do more than simply hang a flag to truly honor all of these values for our black students, staff, and visitors, but we believe this is a lasting symbol to remind us of the need to continue our work towards equity.”
Since then, a steady stream of activity has taken place at schools for younger students. Dr. Charmie Curry, director of diversity, equity & inclusion at Wellesley Public Schools, last week shared an update with the Wellesley School Committee on the past year’s accomplishments, including racial justice lessons during which students discussed and reflected on the Black Lives Matter movement (about 33 minutes into Wellesley Media recording).
“I always love to see how students are taking in important current day topics” and writing about it, she said.
The Fiske Elementary School Council in March posted an agenda item on a Black Lives Matter flag, which included the point that “We need to make sure the goal of placing the flag is not misunderstood by being clear on the purpose.”
Hardy Principal Grant Smith welcomed back families from April vacation by informing them about plans to hang a “We Believe Black Lives Matter” flag in the gym. “The WMS decision sparked conversation amongst WPS administrators, faculty and staff about the need for a flag in each of the district’s buildings. At Hardy, we are committed to affirming the statement that We believe that Black Lives Matter,” he wrote.
Bates and Hunnewell Elementary Schools did likewise with announcements they would be displaying “We Believe Black Lives Matter” and “We Believe That Black Lives Matter” flags, respectively, in their gym and front hallway.
The most recent development, as the Wellesley Public School year winds down, took place at Wellesley’s PAWS pre-school. Director Becca Zieminski informed families on June 7 that on “Thursday, June 10th, the new Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA+ flags will be installed at P.A.W.S. All classrooms will then create individual classroom flags that represent the children in each classroom and the smaller classroom flags will be added to a larger unified PAWS flag that will be hung up in the school.”
The Massachusetts Teacher Association endorses support for what it calls “The Black Lives Matter at School movement,” which is aimed at engaging classrooms and communities to support racial and social justice. Black Lives Matter at School is centered around ending “zero tolerance” policies and replacing those policies with restorative justice programs in all schools; hiring more black teachers; and mandating black history and ethnic studies in preK-12 schools.
Some Massachusetts schools, including in Marblehead, have met resistance from residents.
School districts in some other parts of the country are not on board with such movements. At Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Fla., an English teacher hung a Black Lives Matter flag outside her classroom in support of students processing the death of Reginald Boston, a 20-year-old Black man. Boston was shot to death in Jacksonville by police on Jan. 21, 2020 during an undercover police operation.
The district told the teacher to remove the flag on the grounds that the display violated policy on political speech by employees. The teacher refused to comply, and was reassigned to non-teaching duties. A lawsuit was filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida alleging the teacher’s First Amendment rights have been violated.
Not just a matter for the schools
While much of the Black Lives Matter activity within the Wellesley School System has remained within that community, School Committee Chair Linda Chow at last week’s committee meeting said one challenge remaining is that of educating and engaging with the whole community. “I see that there’s a great opportunity to collaborate between the schools and the town,” she said.
The Town of Wellesley has discussed bringing in a diversity, equity & inclusion consultant and has launched a civil discourse program to help the community address difficult topics civilly. Those efforts are still in relatively early stages.