Education

Mt Hope Student Union calls out Bristol Warren School Committee for racism

“You as a committee are not acting in the best interest of the students, teachers, and administrators of this district,” said Edda Petrillo, a member of the Mt Hope Student Union. “You are failing our students majorly.”
Photo for Mt Hope Student Union calls out Bristol Warren School Committee for racism

Published on November 9, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

“Good evening,” said Mt Hope High School Student and Mt Hope Student Union member Edda Petrillo, backed up by over a dozen of her peers. She was speaking at a meeting of the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee meeting. “I’d like to start out by saying that we are aware that we cannot reverse the decision made at the last meeting regarding the project based learning grant. We as the Mt Hope Student Union are here to demand a change in how this school committee is run.”

As Petrillo approached the end of her speech, the School Board’s attorney called time and tried to shut her down. There were jeers from those in attendance, and demands to “Let her he finish!” These cries fell on the deaf ears of Committee Chair Marjorie McBride, but student Sophia Virgadamo, who was the next person to be allowed to speak, identified herself and ceded her time to Petrillo. Two lines and less than ten seconds later, Petrillo finished her words.

“What happened at the last meeting was racist, plain and simple,” continued Petrillo. “Yes, Ms Simpson Thomas, the facilitator chosen by Dr Deborah Dibiase, focuses on support for black and brown students. However, just because she focuses on black and brown students doesn’t mean that she’s ignoring other students or denying them an opportunity. Before she went on her tangent about ‘what about all students,’ Ms Ellsworth said that they, as in, the black and brown students of our school, deserve to be treated with respect. Yet this committee’s decision was far from any form of respect. You say that we need to uplift all of our students, yet when our community speaks up about issues minorities in our community face, you are nowhere to be found. We are not saying other kids don’t need support. We are saying that black and brown students need to be heard. It’s 2021. The vast majority of our population agrees that there’s racial discrimination in our society and this just further proves it. Come up with any excuse you want, but if you’re not supporting students at a disadvantage, you are not supporting the whole student body and ensuring their future success.

“It’s astonishing that this district gets so many grants given to us, yet this committee, specifically a select group of you, consistently turns down said grants that we desperately need. This district desperately needed this grant. The money given had been pending for over three years, so why is the vendor a concern now? This committee had been pushing back that grant for an incredibly long time, so why wait until the END of the due date? If even we as students can see that we need this money, then there’s clearly a problem. All we hear is adults yelling at each other and, frankly, disgracing this district every time an important issue comes up. If you can’t treat each other with respect, how can you expect us to respect each other? It’s truly embarrassing.

“We’ve been watching this committee consistently drop the ball when it comes to interests pertaining to the student community and their success in the global community. It’s truly a privilege that we have such high graduation rates at this school, but, as Ms Thibedeau pointed out last meeting, our college graduation rates drop significantly. Has it occurred to you that this may be because we are not preparing our students for the outside world? That we are preparing them to continue life in a bubble of whiteness and when they leave it they are checked for their bigotry, for their homophobia, for their racism? You as a committee are not here to push your individual agenda. You are here to represent your community, a vast amount of which want our education system to be better, to teach our students about why they cannot be allowed to continue to be discriminatory and bigoted. You as a committee are not acting in the best interest of the students, teachers, and administrators of this district. You are failing our students majorly.

“I’d like to pull a quote from Ms McBride, back from when she was interviewed by the Student Union for her role that she still holds tonight. Ms McBride, you said that student representation is ‘;critical.’ That you ‘don’t think we have enough’ and that ‘we need to build on that again.’ Yet, when people on this committee are showing blatant signs of bigotry and discrimination towards those very students, you say nothing. You are standing by and helping to hurt the very students that you vowed to protect.

“The Mt. Hope High School Student Union has no confidence in this committee and we demand that Ms McBride, Ms Ellsworth, and Ms Thibedeau, as well as any member unwilling to commit to protecting all students step down. We also demand that proper legislation be put in place so that the responsibilities, term limits, and qualifications of committee members can be properly defined. We want all of you to think, really think, about why you’re on this board and how you affect everyone in this district.”

Petrillo’s comments come in response to last month’s Bristol Warren Regional School Committee meeting where the members voted to reject a grant that would have brought in an expert, Simona Simpson-Thomas, to administer a professional development opportunity for teachers to learn about the needs of students of color.

UpriseRI spoke to Sophia Virgadamo and Olivia Neverka-Vinciguerra, co-founders of the Mt Hope Student Union, ahead of the meeting.

UpriseRI: Can you give me some background on this?

Sophia Virgadamo: We, as the student union have had some interactions with the school committee, not a lot, but we have however, seen a consistent thread of their being very antagonistic. If you’ve noticed, we’ve been through about three superintendents just over the summer. School committee members have consistently fought against everything that has even the air of progressiveness. They were against a mask mandate at the beginning of the school school year. They were the vehemently against pushing the start start a school day back one day, because it was the day of Rosh Hashana. [See: Groups threaten lawsuit over school year beginning on Rosh Hashanah]

Dr DiBiase had been presented with a grant of around $7,000 in 2018. They had been pushing for this to be addressed by the school board for years now and it has been pushed under the rug until last week. During this meeting the problem some school board members said they had with the grant was who would be administering the professional development days for this problem based learning opportunity. Her name was Simona Simpson-Thomas.

In the past, Simpson-Thomas worked on diversity and inclusion, professional development trainings,. Several of the school committee members had a large problem with this, culminating in Boardmember Sheila Ellsworth confronting Dr DiBiase and asking her why she doesn’t care about all students. I felt that this question was incredibly targeted and racist. Dr DiBiase is one of the best principals I’ve had the chance of being a student under. All she does is care. Ellsworth’s question was under the same rhetoric as “All Lives Matter.” As the student union, we have fought from day one for equity for all students, including minority students.

We have worked, in previous instances, with the superintendent and the administration on getting a more diverse history and English curriculum, which was then compromised into a diversity in America class. We have worked with them to fight for more time for students who are distance learning.

Olivia Neverka-Vinciguerra: We’re not a part of the school. We’re separate and outside of it. We’re a union of students not run by the school. We work alongside administration more than for them. We’re basically advocates for students. If there’s a problem or issue within the school and people feel comfortable talking to us rather than to the administration, we bring it forward to the administration from there.

Virgadamo: There are three school committee members that we think the only move forward is for them to resign. That’s Chairperson Marjorie McBride, Vice-Chairperson Tara Thibaudeau and Sheila Ellsworth.

Neverka-Vinciguerra: Granted, the school is predominantly white, but there are a few minority students within the school. And not everyone identifies as straight in our school either. There is a LGBT community within the school and the school committee doesn’t like to address that. There are members in Union that are a part of that community. We had an issue of one of our members speaking in the past and they ended up getting transphobic remarks made towards them, after the fact, by adults in the community.


UpriseRI also spoke with Edda Petrillo after her speech to the school committee.

The Mt. Hope Student Union is having a protest on Saturday from 3-5pm, location to be determined.

The meeting was interrupted twice, once when over 150 teachers and their supporters, there to support their students but also to remind the School Committee about contract negotiations, walked out en masse. Later, the more than 25 students present in support of Petrillo and the Mt Hope Student Union walked out.

Here’s the official Bristol Warren Regional School Committee video of the October 25 meeting where the grant was rejected. The audio and video quality of this official meeting is quite poor:

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