Lissa McDonald and Nyasha Rutanhira

South Burlington High School assistant principal, Lissa McDonald, joined sophomore and student justice union president, Nyasha Rutanhira, to hold up one of the many posters addressing slurs displayed around the school campus.

The student justice union was one of the first clubs Nyasha Rutanhira joined when she entered South Burlington High School. At the end of her sophomore year, she ran for union president and now, as a junior, she’s spearheaded a school policy against slurs in the school community.

While multiple racial harassment incidents have blown up at sporting events and in classrooms in the last year in South Burlington and across the state, Rutanhira said the impetus for the new policy has been brewing for a long time.

Incidents with teachers like retired department head Stephen Barner, who district officials found violated the policy for prevention of harassment, hazing and bullying of students last spring after he joked about hanging a noose-like object from a Black Lives Matter flag, reignited the union’s desire for an anti-slur specific policy. When a student came to Rutanhira, relaying they heard an anti-LGBTQ slur while walking down the hallway, they wondered: why isn’t there a framework to deal with this?

The school’s current policy, which school board officials have discussed revising, mentions slurs under the harassment umbrella, grouping them in with epithets, stereotypes, insults, derogatory remarks and more as related to protected categories other than racial or sexual.

“The reality was it just wasn’t being enforced. There was nothing happening, there was no consequence,” Rutanhira said of the harassment, hazing and bullying policy. So, in response, students created a straightforward two-page policy explaining the definition of a slur, who the policy applies to, and the restorative and disciplinary consequences of violating it.

Senior Gianna Morin serves as social media coordinator on the student justice union, in addition to her role as student body president.

“It very much outlines all of these issues that we’ve had, not just this year, in past years as well, that have gone unnoticed. I think this year, there was just so many at once that it really brought up the conversation,” she said. Morin thinks interest in an anti-slur policy might extend back to the days of the high school mascot change, when the South Burlington Rebels, which some saw as a nod to the Confederacy, became the Wolves in 2017.

The students define a slur as “an insinuation or allegation about someone that is likely to insult them or damage their reputation.” They also included a note on what matters when harm is done, arguing that accountability and active steps to repair harm helps individuals to improve and the school community to grow.

A series of educational and restorative steps for folks who violate the policy come before disciplinary consequences.

Rutanhira hopes to lead with education, explaining that people who use slurs often don’t know or understand why they’re disrespectful. Sometimes people don’t mean to inflict harm when saying something off-hand, she said, adding that she recalls times when she was in the same boat.

“That’s what the protocol really outlines is going through and listening to other people and talking about it as a group, like, how does that impact us as a community? Then, how can we change that?” Morin explained.

Rutanhira added that she’s a “huge believer” in talking things out, airing laundry, not just so everyone is on the same page, but also as a way to learn. Working with peers can be more impactful than being lectured by a teacher, she said.

Still, extreme situations would have more extreme consequences, such as loss of school privileges, removal from school teams or activities, and suspension from school.

Anyone in the school community can report violations of the policy, which is meant to work with the existing hazing, harassment and bullying policy, according to the document.

“We want to make it clear: this has to do with context,” added Gianna, noting that the student justice union’s discussion of intention versus impact has been integral to policy crafting. “They are students, they’re all learning, and they’re all coming from different places.”

But the policy doesn’t just apply to students.

It includes “any student, school staff member or guest/visitor who directs a slur toward any other person or group of people at school or at a school-related activity.”

Staff in violation should participate in a restorative conference and work with the human resources department, the executive director of equity and the administration; parents, guests or others in violation should also participate in a restorative conference and recognize that being a guest on campus and at high school events is a “privilege” that may be suspended.

Both Morin and Rutanhira are quick to describe the policy as a group effort, not specific to the student justice union. Rather, it’s a school-wide initiative with support from the student council, other clubs, members of the faculty and parents.

Faculty co-advisors Drew Gordon and Bob Metz are on hand to help the student justice union, answer questions and offer help in planning, but Gordon said the students are so “fantastic” that he has not done much.

“For this particular thing, the students have spearheaded everything. It has been a totally school-wide effort,” Gordon said. “Seeing the process unfold has been really inspiring.”

From the faculty he’s worked with, practicing what the protocol would look like, Gordon said he’s heard excited feedback.

“They’re totally behind this school policy. It’s not a student justice union policy. It’s a school policy and it does feel like the support is there across the board,” he said.

The school board briefly discussed the policy at a meeting Nov. 3.

“In general, I think it’s great. I love the students’ initiative to take it on,” said chair Bridget Burkhardt, though she added she has lingering questions.

The policy was embedded in the South Burlington High School student handbook Nov. 15, and the student justice union hopes to take its work into the other district schools by next year.

Rutanhira’s big picture goal — which she describes with confidence, not as a far-fetched dream — is to present the policy as an example for other school districts, turning it into a state-wide movement.

While Rutanhira and her peers are passionate about the anti-slur policy, she argued that it’s not her or other students’ responsibilities to share their stories or shoulder anti-racism work. As a school-wide policy, the burden isn’t solely on the student justice union, students and staff of color, folks in the LGBTQ community or any one person.

“We shouldn’t have to do this, it should already be in place,” Rutanhira said. “But, like, someone has to step up and do it.”

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