Burlington officials are facing calls to strengthen diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts after an LGBTQ+ Pride celebration at a middle school this month was disrupted by students who tore down rainbow decorations and chanted that their pronouns were “U.S.A.”
Parents and residents condemned the “counter-protest” during a Select Board meeting Monday night and urged officials to reinstate the board’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, subcommittee. A School Committee meeting is scheduled for Tuesday night, as officials face calls to fill a DEI administration role in the district that has been vacant since fall.
“These displays of intolerance and homophobia are unacceptable and impact the whole community,” said Nancy Bonassera, co-chair of the Burlington Equity Coalition, during the meeting.
“We challenge Burlington town leadership to take an active stand against hate under the guise of ‘free expression,’ ” Bonassera said.
At issue is an incident at Marshall Simonds Middle School on June 2, as the school’s LGBTQ+ student organization celebrated the beginning of Pride Month with a spirit day event, according to letters to parents from Superintendent Eric Conti and Principal Cari Perchase.
The student organization, called the Spectrum Group, invited students to wear rainbow clothing. They also handed out rainbow stickers to students and posted Pride signs.
According to the letters from administrators, some other students tore down the banners and signs while chanting “U.S.A. are my pronouns,” and intimidated students and staffers who were supporting the Spectrum event.
“I want to publicly state that I stand in solidarity and support of the members of the LGBTQ community who were impacted by these events,” Perchase wrote. “I am truly sorry that a day meant for you to celebrate your identity turned into a day of intolerance.”
Perchase said “specific acts of intolerance” were directed toward students and faculty members “who were showing their Pride and support for the LGBTQ+ community.” She said some students “glared intimidatingly at faculty members for showing pride.”
Word of the incident began spreading on social media that day. Carl Foss, a father of two elementary school students and former member of the Burlington School Committee, said he was disheartened to learn what had taken place.
“I think that in Massachusetts we sometimes get complacent and think we’re insulated from this type of hate,” he said Monday. “There are a lot of efforts ongoing at the schools, but it’s obvious there needs to be more done both in the schools [and] at the town level.”
Foss, who teaches middle school in Lowell, was also a member of the Burlington Select Board’s DEI subcommittee, which dissolved after presenting a final report to the town late last year. He said that although he hoped the board would extend the subcommittee for another year, it was originally planned as a one-year charge.
“Hopefully, and perhaps with some urging [by] the people who speak at the meeting, they will either reinstate the same committee or bring it back in a different format,” he said. “I think the need is pretty clear.”
Just days after the incident, antisemitic and racist graffiti was discovered in a bathroom in the middle school, Perchase wrote to parents on June 6. The graffiti was believed to be unrelated to the discord over the Pride event, she wrote.
During Monday’s meeting, Select Board member Michael Espejo said the June 2 incident “shocked me to my core.”
“I stand in solidarity with the LGBTQIA community and anyone in our community, or a child, parent, or teacher who was hurt or scared or frightened or disparaged by anything that happened in the school,” he said.
Espejo also called for the school district to fill its DEI administration role.
Discussion around the June 2 incident lasted about 30 minutes. Select Board chairman Michael Runyan thanked members of the community for speaking out.
“The administration takes this matter seriously, and I assure you we will be having conversations over the coming weeks regarding this issue and we will report back by the end of the summer,” he said.
Burlington School Committee chairwoman Martha Simon said the school ”provided support to students and staff who were negatively affected, and administered consequences for behavior that is against our policies.”
“The school met with the entire student body to educate them about how their behaviors affect others, to take responsibility for their behaviors, and to help us become a more inclusive community where all of us feel that we belong,” Simon said in a statement..”
The Burlington Education Association, the district’s teachers union, expressed disappointment at the actions of some of the students.
“The BEA has a strong history of supporting student rights to free speech and protest. We also recognize there are lines that must not be crossed to ensure everyone’s rights are protected,” the union said in a statement. “We are heart-stricken by the senseless, wrongheaded, homophobic reactions against the Marshall Simonds Middle School’s LGBTQ+ community.”