Education

Bristol Students Are Joining Providence Students in the Fight to Bring Gen-Z Beliefs into School Systems

“When given an opportunity to embrace the Black and brown students in our school, you shut it down, because it didn’t suit all the students. ‘All Lives Matter’… is what you’re saying,” said student Luciano Camara, to the Bristol Warren School Committee.
Photo for Bristol Students Are Joining Providence Students in the Fight to Bring Gen-Z Beliefs into School Systems

Published on November 15, 2021
By Will James

Students in Bristol watched BLM protests play out across the country, and saw that some in Rhode Island were being led by youth at the Providence Student Union. Some had participated in many protests before, while others had mostly observed, but both types of student came together Saturday at Bristol Town Hall for their first protest as the Mt. Hope Student Union. They say the Providence Student Union has provided advice and publicity.

The local student union is calling for the resignation of three Bristol Warren School Committee members who voted against spending grant money on a teacher training program based on who would be leading it. The program was made up of 10 sessions, with one preparing teachers to address the needs of marginalized students. The committee members being asked to resign are Tara Thibaudeau, Sheila Ellsworth, and Marjorie McBride, who has been on the committee for about 24 years. In chants and speeches, students said repeatedly that these committee members do not represent their values.

Seren Davies, president of the high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, had a spoken word poem ready to describe the situation, saying, “Bristol-Warren? Wasn’t that the district that was going to start on a Jewish holiday? Bristol-Warren? Wasn’t that the district that almost didn’t let kids go back to school masked? Bristol-Warren? That’s the school that has gone through four superintendents in a few months, and now, Bristol-Warren? Isn’t that the district that was in the news for making incredibly racist comments and denying a grant based on the vendor’s race?”

Student union co-president Sophia Virgadamo stated that the same five committee members often vote against proposals that would bring positive changes to the school district. During the recent Jewish holiday controversy, the final vote was also 5 to 4.

While the students had concerns about the school district’s finances, the primary focus of the protest was on racism. At a previous meeting, the committee members who are being asked to resign each questioned whether Simona Simpson-Thomas was qualified to lead the program being funded by the grant money. According to East Bay RI, these committee members were concerned with Simpson-Thomas’ work empowering Black and brown students, and suggested that funding her program could be unfair to students who are not Black or brown.

“A true advocate for all students understands the necessity of prioritizing minority students,” said Vic Bullard loudly, over wind, “it is undeniable… that those on the school committee who claim to care so much about all students simply do not want the focus to be shifted onto minority students, specifically Black and brown students.”

Student union members also said that Bristol and Warren schools are not free of racism and homophobia, which are issues they say the school committee is not addressing. Luciano mentioned an incident where he tried to call out a group of students who were using the n-word, but the school’s focus was on his response rather than what the other students had said. Multiple speakers told stories about LGBTQIA+ students being harassed or physically assaulted.

“If you’re a sore thumb [sticking out] of predominately white, straight kids, you’re targeted because of that,” said student union co-president Olivia Neverka-Vinciguerra, “the school committee doesn’t realize that… these decisions that they’re making are just enabling that rhetoric within our school, [it] isn’t helping the situation.”

Standing a few feet away from the students, a group of about 10 adults gathered to support the school committee members that are being asked to resign. They declined an interview, saying they were not familiar with Uprise RI, but asked reporter Will James to look for additional details about why the grant money was rejected.

At the meeting where the money was rejected, East Bay RI reported that committee members shared conflicting opinions on the grant approval process, and were not informed on the exact amount of grant money available. The Providence Journal reached out to committee members after the Mt. Hope Student Union protest, but only committee member Carly Reich agreed to an interview. Before the committee voted to reject spending the grant money, Reich said that “the school committee seems willing to punish our students for a disagreement or a misunderstanding about how this money is distributed,” and continued, saying, “I don’t understand why we have this need to refuse money and programming and other sorts of things that are caught up in some kind of conspiracy theory ideas.”

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