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Posted under: News

Black Former Politician Receives $137K Settlement After Town Failed To Properly Investigate Her Racial Harassment Claims

In the settlement, the town of Bennington also agreed to offer pro bono legal services for five years.

The town of Bennington, Vermont has agreed to pay the family of a Black former state politician $137,500 and to release a public apology in regards to her complaints that police did not conduct a sufficient investigation into racist harassment that led her to resign.

On Thursday, the select board voted unanimously to approve a settlement agreement in relation to Kiah Morris’ complaint to the Human Rights Commission, according to The Burlington Free Press. Morris, who was the only Black woman in the Vermont Legislature, as Blavity previously reported, resigned in 2018 after she was the recipient of racial threats. Her family has since sold their Bennington home and moved away from the area.

During a selectboard meeting this week, Chair Jeannie Jenkins said in a public apology that they have listened to Morris and know that they have to do better to protect all members of the town.

“No one in Bennington should feel unsafe or unprotected. We have listened to Kiah Morris, James Lawton and their family in mediation. It is clear that Kiah, James and their family felt unsafe and unprotected by the Town of Bennington,” she read. “We have to do better by all persons who live in, work in or travel through the Town of Bennington irrespective of color, race, religion and other categories as protected by law.”

Jenkins continued that the town "apologizes to Kiah Morris, James Lawton and their family for the harms and trauma they encountered while residing in Bennington, and we fully acknowledge this reality. We pledge to learn, to do better and to protect all of our citizens.”

The board chair indicated that the settlement was reached through mediation. She added that the settlement will be officially recognized after all parties sign it and the complaint is withdrawn.

Per the terms of the settlement, Bennington town officials agreed to work with Vermont Legal Aid to offer pro bono legal services for at least five years and pledged to improve its work with the public and ACLU in providing police accountability.

Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland area NAACP, was critical of the settlement total and condemned the city’s apology as “weak and insincere at best."

"Once again there is no accountability for the systemic racism that is overwhelmingly present in the police department, the select board and the town manager," she said.

Last year, The International Association of Chiefs of Police completed a review of the department and found that the BPD poorly managed its relationships in parts of the community, jeopardizing its "law enforcement legitimacy." The report stated that the department has some antiquated policies that are too ambiguous in modern times, and cited that officers often bring a "warrior mentality" to daily interactions with locals.

Neither the selectboard nor did the town manager elect to respond to questions regarding the settlement. Morris has expressed that she will issue more on the matter in the future.

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