When Esther Charlestin, former dean of culture and climate at Middlebury Union Middle School (MUMS), went on summer vacation in June, she had no idea the break would be a permanent one. Charlestin had only been employed at the school for a year before she resigned from her position, effective Sept. 1.
Charlestin, who had previously served as the residential director and the assistant director of community standards at Middlebury College as well as a town of Middlebury selectboard member, was attracted to the job posting’s mention of restorative practices in tandem with school discipline.
Restorative justice is a practice that centers on healing the harm inflicted rather than utilizing punishment to achieve accountability, with the aim of preventing future offenses.
After serving as a co-leader of the Addison Central School District’s Advisory Committee for Equity, working on diversity and equity recommendations for the Addison County School District’s strategic plans, Charlestin was excited to implement her experience and vision at Middlebury Union. However, the problems at the middle school began for Charlestin almost immediately.
“[The] idea they had for the role and the job I did was very different,” she said. “What I envisioned was to focus on the climate and culture piece. There wasn’t space for that.”
Instead, Charlestin’s primary responsibility was to discipline students with punitive punishments such as detentions and reprimands before sending them back to class. She enforced these punitive procedures as the school’s code of conduct prescribed because, as someone new to the school and one of the few employees of color, Charlestin felt it was pertinent for her to build trust within the community while under scrutiny.
“Being a Black woman, I knew things would be questioned when I made a decision,” Charlestin said.
Suspecting students would not respond well to the punitive nature of the code of conduct, Charlestin decided to collect data over the course of her first year as dean so that she could use numbers to inform adjust policies for the next school year, according to an op-ed she wrote that the Addison Independent published in late August.
Throughout the year, Charlestin experienced what she called a series of microaggressions, which eventually began to escalate into full on attacks. In one instance, she saw graffiti in the girl’s bathroom which read, “I Hate (N-WORD) Dean.” A few months later, while disciplining a student, Charlestin was called a “F-ing N-WORD.”
Charlestin informed the school of these incidents, but, according to her op-ed, wrote that she often felt alone at Middlebury Union Middle School and “the response [from school administration] was underwhelming at best.”
Charlestin also noted in her op-ed another incident during a staff meeting when she spoke out about teachers’ use of harsher disciplinary action towards Black students than white students for similar offenses. Her statement was followed by silence, demonstrating what Charlestin described as “the lack of tools, awareness, and knowledge around [the issue].”
In an email to the school community in response to Charlestin’s resignation on Sept. 1, Middlebury Union Middle School Principal Michaela Wisell wrote, “It is unacceptable that Esther experienced these acts of racism. We do want each of you to know that in coordination with central office administrators, MUMS administration responded to every allegation of student wrongdoing including any and all acts of racism with a thorough investigation and immediate consequences.”
Still, Charlestin told The Campus that punishments within the handbook’s punitive framework failed to address the root cause of why students were committing racist acts. She said it seemed that the middle school handled things the best they knew how but it felt like they were not equipped, and were making it up as they went.
As it is currently written, the middle school’s handbook outlines punishments for “hazing, harassment, and bullying,” without any mention of racism.
This past May, Charlestin signed a contract to return to Middlebury Union Middle School for the 2023-24 school year, but the stress of the position was already taking a mental and physical toll on her. According to her op-ed, Charlestin visited the hospital numerous times, increased her therapy to twice a week and was diagnosed with depression. She said her body was shutting down, but she continued to push through by showing up to work every day, as so many people of color do in predominantly white spaces.
When Charlestin had time off in July, she had the space to reflect on her time at Middlebury Union Middle School and ultimately made the decision not to return for the following year. She emphasized the difficulty of sacrificing her source of income and insurance by leaving the position.
Wisell thanked Charlestin for her work and stated that the Addison County School District would soon be implementing changes, pending school board approval, to the strategic plan, according to an email to staff at the middle school.
“Our MUMS community, like the world around us, has significant work to do to ensure that all students and staff feel safe, welcome, and seen,” Wisell wrote in the Sept. 1 email.
As part of a plan announced last year in response to incidents of hate speech, this year school leaders in the Addison County School District will participate in a monthly focus group on anti-bias leadership and work with an expert consultant on increasing inclusion in the school district’s BIPOC staff and students.
Charlestin’s is the latest in a series of resignations of high profile Black women in Vermont in recent years. Both Winooski’s first equity director, Yasamin Gordon, and Burlington’s first racial equity director, Tyeastia Green resigned from their positions, citing racism as a factor.
Since her resignation from Middlebury Union Middle School, Charlestin has moved on to a new opportunity. She is both founder and CEO of newly created consulting organization Conversation Compass, which aims to facilitate conversations about race in school districts, hospitals and workplaces across Vermont.
Charlestin spoke at the Addison County School District school meeting on Sept. 25 to encourage them to adjust their policies to better suit the BIPOC community.
“Policy is where we should start,” Charlestin said.“That’s where we start to shift the system.”
Sarah Miller '24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large.
She previously served as Opinions Editor and Staff Writer. Miller is an English major on the Creative Writing track. She hails from Philadelphia and spent the spring studying English at Trinity College Dublin. She has interned for The New England Review and hosts a WRMC radio show where you can still listen to her many opinions.