Waterbury Board of Education Commissioner Tom Van Stone Sr.

Column by John Murray

   A unique intersection of opportunity and need has presented itself in Waterbury as the city roils with racial tension triggered by four students of color choosing to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance at Waterbury Arts Magnet School. The students sat in silence last Autumn as a protest against racial discrimination in America. The response to the protest triggered federal litigation, inflammatory comments by a Board of Education commissioner, a rebuke from the NAACP and black clergy, and a head-spinning response across social media.

   The firestorm began in October 2018 when one of the students came home and told her mother, Gina Humber, that Italian language teacher Ralph Belvedere had mocked and shamed her for their protest and brought another teacher into his classroom to lecture the students about their lack of patriotism. The 14-year-old sophomore told her mother, who is a national speaker on diversity and education, that she was frightened and intimidated by some of Belvedere’s actions and they filed a First Amendment lawsuit against Belvedere and the school district.

Gina Humber has a masters degree and is a national speaker on education and diversity. It was her 14-year-old daughter who encountered problems at Waterbury Arts Magnet School when she decided to sit quietly during the Pledge of Allegiance.

   New Haven attorney John Williams was hired by the family and he sued Belvedere for punitive damages and sought $1 in damages from the Waterbury Board of Education, and legal fees. Williams told the Connecticut Law Tribune in October 2018 that neither he or his client were looking to break the district or enrich themselves, and that Gina Humber was, “helping her daughter feel empowered and to stand up for her own beliefs in a respectful and appropriate way.”

   The lawsuit was dismissed on February 9th when the Waterbury Board of Education and Ralph Belvedere agreed to settle the federal lawsuit. The student’s legal fees were paid, and the Waterbury school district publicly acknowledged that students have the right to not participate in the Pledge of Allegiance.

   Waterbury was embroiled in a similar controversy in 1997 when Wilby High School principal Martin Galvin confronted a young black student, Tisha Byars, for refusing to stand and pledge allegiance to the flag. Galvin removed Byars from her homeroom and isolated her in the principal’s office during the Pledge of Allegiance. Byars was also denied acceptance into the National Honor Society for “lack of character” for her silent daily protest. The Byars family fought back with a federal lawsuit and won a financial settlement and a federal court order mandating Tisha be inducted into the National Honor Society.

Tisha Byars, right, with her parents Dennis and Arlene in 1997.

   During the Byars very public fight there was an outpouring of racial slurs aimed at her and her family. She had never pledged allegiance to the flag during her entire career in Waterbury public schools and had no issue until she collided with a hot-headed principal at Wilby High School. Tisha’s stance was driven by a family belief that there had never been “justice and liberty for all”, so why mouth empty words? When the protest erupted into the media there were calls for the Byars to move back to Africa, and when The Waterbury Observer supported their stance, advertisers pulled ads, called us names, and some suggested we relocate our publication to Africa, too.

   The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that it is a violation of your First Amendment rights for the government to make you say something you don’t want to say. Students have a right to remain seated and silent during the pledge, but do not have the right to disrupt the proceedings. In addition to social protests, members of the Quaker faith do not pledge allegiance to the flag as they reserve their expressions of allegiance solely for God, and not flag or country.

   With the settlement of the federal lawsuit on February 9th it appeared the situation was resolved, and it was, until Board of Education commissioner Tom Van Stone Sr. entered the fray.

   Fresh on the heels of the settlement, Van Stone made controversial remarks at a Board of Education meeting that now has a coalition of local clergy and civil rights leaders calling for his resignation from the BOE curriculum committee that he chairs.

   Van Stone began his comments by quoting the opening lyrics of the Black National Anthem.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,

Till earth and heaven ring.

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise,

   He said it was a beautiful song and that he has stood proudly with members of the community while it was performed. Van Stone then veered into the Pledge of Allegiance controversy saying it only “takes two minutes to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance” and that he’d looked back on the past week “and seen our population not respect our country.”

   The white Republican commissioner went on to detail his family’s military service and sacrifice and recommended that students “no longer have the day off for Veterans Day and no longer take a day off for Dr. Martin Luther King Day.”

   Instead, Van Stone suggested, students should go to an event “that teaches them everything about our American history. If they choose to come to school, then the events of the day will only be to honor what those days bring to us.”

   Who would be at school to teach the students wasn’t addressed, and what events would “teach students everything about American history” wasn’t detailed, which is baffling since Van Stone is chairman of the curriculum committee on the Board of Education.

   Van Stone ended his comments by saying, “I’m proud to be an American and I don’t think it takes a whole lot to stand for two minutes.”

Tom Van Stone Sr, making his remarks on February 21st, 2019.

   By many accounts Tom Van Stone Sr. is a decent and caring man who has spent years in public service to the students of Waterbury. But Van Stone’s comments defy not only the United States Constitution but are a thumb in the eye of the lawsuit settlement and the public proclamation from the school board that students have the right to sit quietly during the Pledge of Allegiance.

   No student anywhere in America has to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Van Stone and many others may wish that every student stand, but personal opinion is meaningless when pitted against First Amendment Rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.

   Unwittingly Tom Van Stone’s comments ignited a firestorm. While uncorking what he believed to be a call for patriotism, he’d unleashed a racial collision between members of the black and white communities in Waterbury. A video of Van Stone’s commentary circled around social media with many supporting his views, and some going so far as to attack the students and suggesting they leave the country.

   Others called Van Stone’s comments racist and called for his immediate resignation. On February 28th a coalition of Concerned Black Clergy, the Grace Baptist Church, the local chapter of the NAACP and Radical Advocates For Cross-Cultural Exchange (RAACE) issued a statement and announced a press conference addressing Van Stone’s comments on Sunday March 2nd at Grace Baptist Church in Waterbury.

   The statement said that Van Stone’s comments “exhibited a large degree of racial insensitivity and complete disregard for students’ rights protected under the Constitution.”

   Opting to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance or taking a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner are actions viewed as traitorous by some, but many others, including The Waterbury Observer, view these actions as silent and respectful calls for America to do better.

   If you’re satisfied with race relations in America, you’re not paying attention. Unarmed black men are being gunned down by police at alarming rates all across the country, which led to Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee protest on the sidelines of NFL games, and his subsequent ouster from the league.

    Locally, individuals who frequent the comment section of the Republican-American newspaper’s website sprung to life over the Van Stone controversy. Conservative1 wrote, ”Do not apologize or step down because men of color don’t stay with their mates or children. Do not apologize because women of color make babies with men that run away like Usain Bolt. Do not apologize because “these people” cannot raise their children right.”

   Almost all the comments were made by faceless and anonymous individuals. Freepress wrote, “Gimme a break, not every comment, no matter how remotely related to black people, is racist. Van Stone’s were most certainly not. Van Stone just suggested that children who chose to not stand or say the Pledge of Allegiance ought to be taught more about what this country and the Pledge stand for, on certain holidays, in order to correct misconceptions they may have. How is that racist?”

   Hmmm, perhaps an older white man’s perceptions of reality might be different than a black man’s, or that of a 15-year-old black student. Why should different imply misconception?

   One commentator on the Republican-American website who did leave his name was Bob Nield who wrote, “And to the Republic, for which it stands, One nation, under God,

Indivisible, with Liberty and justice for all. Lift ev’ry voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring. Ring with the harmonies of Liberty. Do you get it now? Sadly, many still do not. Commenters here who make statements about race-baiters being divisive are themselves ignorantly doing the same thing and are therefore hypocrites. And, yes, unfortunately many will not be able to resist polluting the pulpit this Sunday with hate speech. I served for a number of reasons, and one of them was so that morons who haven’t the capacity to understand liberty may never the less exercise it.”

The Press Conference

   Pastor Kristopher Reese of Grace Baptist Church opened the press conference criticizing Van Stone’s use of the Black National Anthem to begin his comments at the Board of Education. “Well Mr. Van Stone, there are other lyrics you left out….

High as the list’ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

Pastor Kristopher Reese of Grace Baptist Church opened the press conference.

   Reverend Rodney Wade of the Long Hill Bible Church said, “Tom Van Stone says it takes two minutes to stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance, but I say he took three minutes to divide us once again.”

   Wade spoke of an African proverb that said if the surviving lions don’t tell their story, the hunters will get all of the credit, “and for far too long in the city of Waterbury the hunters have been getting all the credit because they have been telling our story. We refuse from this day forward to let anyone dictate to us in this community what an American is. We have a First Amendment right just like everyone else to make a choice, which makes this nation great.”

Pastor Rodney Wade of the Long Hill Bible Church.

   Wade, like Pastor Reese before him, was especially riled up over Van Stone’s use of the Black National Anthem in his remarks. “How dare anyone take something as sacred as the Black National Anthem and juxtapose that to make an argument as to why black folks are not understanding our history,” Wade said. “We’re clear about our history. We know we came here on slave ships. We understand Jim Crow and all the things this country has put us through. We stand here today to say we will not tolerate it or put up with this any longer.”

   Next up was Ginnie-Rae Clay, the president of the Greater Waterbury NAACP. Clay expressed disappointment that “the entire Board of Education sat silent and failed to condemn Commissioner Van Stone as he disrespected an entire population of students and their families.”

Ginnie-Rae Clay is President of the Greater Waterbury NAACP.

   Taking exception with Van Stone’s use of the Black National Anthem, Clay said the NAACP and many community members “are extremely offended that Commissioner Van Stone consciously made the decision to desecrate the Black National Anthem by using certain verses to make clear his racially biased, ridiculous, offensive and unconstitutional proposal to eliminate the Dr. Martin Luther King federal holiday.”

   Clay said the group was not interested in an apology from Van Stone and wanted him to step down as the chairman of the curriculum committee “as his bias…and the blatant attack on the African American culture disqualifies him from chairing this crucial committee.”

    If Van Stone were to continue as a board commissioner, Clay said, he must agree to attend an anti-bias training program at his own expense.

   Gina Humber is the mother of the student who filed the federal lawsuit and is a NYC teacher and an accomplished author.  She graduated from City College of New York, where she earned her master’s degree in Special Education and a minor in African American History.  One of her books is titled, “It’s All Good – a book about self-acceptance and diversity.”

   Humber said she is glad Van Stone spoke up at the last board of education meeting. “Now you know exactly who he is,” she said. “I love when you guys talk what you talk. It makes it very apparent to know who you are, so when you’re taken down don’t be surprised about it.”

   Empty threats from the community were of little value, Humber said, “lets make threats that make them think about everything they say. Let them know their jobs are in jeopardy, from the mayor on down. Don’t let the 14-year-old girl be the only voice that is heard. Let your voice be heard.”

   As for Tom Van Stone Sr. he is undoubtedly stunned at the backlash from his three-minute commentary. After the NAACP and black clergy statement was released on Friday, March 1st, Van Stone was interviewed by Republican-American reporter Michael Puffer, who wrote, “Van Stone repeatedly insisted his remarks were not inspired or prompted by recent news of the settlement. Van Stone said he’s been upset with the lack of patriotism by people of all races on display at sporting events, as people talk through and drink beer during the national anthem. He said his comments could have come at any time. “It’s pure coincidence, yes,” Van Stone said.”

   Van Stone did not attend the press conference on Sunday afternoon or respond to media requests for comment, but he did issue a statement through Facebook on March 2nd

   “My thoughts at the Board of Education meeting on February 21, 2019 were in no way intended to be punitive against students who choose not to stand for the pledge of allegiance.

   My suggestion was for every student in the school district to either attend an educational event about America’s history or to attend school on important national days of reverence to partake in productive, two-way conversations and curricula 100 percent focused on why these federal holidays of important historical significance are so central to our community’s vibrance.

   I would never suggest we punish our children for expressing opinions on issues they feel are important. Rather, my suggestion was simply to take the opportunity on national days of reverence to educate our youth on the history that has shaped our society today and open dialogue that can shape our society of tomorrow.”

   Van Stone, however, has not addressed why he chose to start his comments with lyrics from the Black National Anthem, which cast a spotlight on black students – who were the ones not standing and pledging allegiance to the flag. Van Stone has not addressed why he publicly, and unconstitutionally exerted pressure on students to stand and recite the pledge after the Board of Education publicly stated they did not have to. And if race wasn’t at play even on a subliminal level, why did Van Stone suggest taking away Dr. King Day instead of Columbus Day?

   At the moment members of the black community, and Van Stone and his supporters, are talking past each other. Van Stone hasn’t offered an apology, and the black leaders have publicly stated they aren’t interested in one. The public commentary is increasing in anger on both sides, and there might be a healthier way to deal with this situation instead of a confrontation at the next Board of Education meeting, or in nightly Facebook rants.

   How? Consider the intersection between opportunity and need that revealed itself yesterday at Naugatuck Valley Community College with the opening of a Center For Racial Dialogue and Communal Transformation. The center is described, “as a forum to have difficult conversations.”

Naugatuck Valley Community College President Daisy Cocco De Filippis welcomed Congresswoman Jahana Hayes to celebrate the opening of the Center for Racial Dialogue and Communal Transformation yesterday afternoon.

   Instead of passionate individuals talking at each other, let’s get Tom Van Stone and elected officials together with the NAACP and members of the concerned black clergy to openly talk about the issue face to face. This is a teachable moment in the city of Waterbury and NVCC President Daisy Cocco De Filippis, Board of Education chairman Liz Brown and Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary should reach out and make this happen.

   We have educators and clergy involved in this confrontation and by coming together to speak openly these community leaders have the opportunity to provide Waterbury with a healing moment.

Waterbury, Connecticut. Photograph by John Murray

   When apartheid collapsed in South Africa in the 1990s there was a critical moment when Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president in the country. Many thought he would seek retribution for the decades of white oppression and for his 27 years in prison on Robben Island. Instead Mandela shocked both blacks and whites when he forgave his captors and sought reconciliation.

   Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote about this in, “No Future Without Forgiveness”, which is a lesson for Waterbury right now. Tom Van Stone is a decent man who made a mistake. Is he open to learning from this incident and apologizing? Will leaders in the black community accept a Van Stone apology and work together with him and the Board of Education to forge a new reality in Waterbury?

   Who will take the first step? Who is going to bring the protagonists together? Our children are watching.