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Our Role as Public Educators

August 18, 2017

Several of you have reached out to ask what your role is as public educators in addressing your students and their parents regarding the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.  

Let’s start by acknowledging that people can reasonably disagree about important issues. In fact, the strength of our democracy depends on protecting space for civil dissent. It is through civil discourse that we forge commitment to shared purposes, including Vermont’s economic prosperity and civic health. As Americans, we have an obligation to protect the rights of all of us to disagree. 

However, we have an equal obligation to denounce any group that has as its core purpose the silencing or subjugation of others on the basis of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, race, color, religion, national origin, immigration status, age, or disability.  

The history we teach in our schools reveals that the continued pursuit of liberty and justice is our American legacy and project. As Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter to Joshua Speed: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I would prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia for instance, where despotism can be taken pure.” Lincoln was a product of his time, but knew at his core that discrimination was antithetical to democracy. Equality is something we work towards, but struggle to achieve.

Our Vermont Constitution enshrines the rights of free assembly and speech, but also the foundational principle that all persons are born equally free and with certain inherent rights. Vermont has a long history of opposing discrimination against persons based on race, sex, color, religion, sexual preference, disability and national origin. This commitment to equality is the foundation of many Vermont laws. Just this past session in Act 5, our General Assembly and Governor reaffirmed our core commitments to affirming and protecting the rights of all Vermonters, recognizing that Vermont has the moral obligation to protect its residents from religious persecution. This commitment is also reflected in laws that govern behavior in schools, requiring all schools to have safe, orderly and positive learning environments. No Vermont students should feel threatened or be discriminated against in school; harassment, bullying and hazing are not—nor should ever be-- tolerated. Discrimination undermines democracy.

Read the full memo on Our Role as Educators, from Secretary Holcombe.