Lake Paran gate closed after report of racial incident
Editor's note: This story was updated at 1:27 p.m. on June 7, 2020.
NORTH BENNINGTON — After reports that several teenagers of color suffered racial harassment at Lake Paran on Thursday, the North Bennington Trustees and the board of Paran Recreations locked the gate to the popular recreation spot on Friday, saying they were not able to provide needed staff and resources for the beach and picnic area.
Village Trustees Chairman John Lamson issued a statement shortly before noon Friday, saying that the board and the not-for-profit group overseeing the lake “were made aware of racist incidents that occurred at Lake Paran yesterday. These are on top of multiple incidents of behaviors that are unsafe and unfitting a shared community resource.”
In posts on Facebook, the teen girls described racist comments, along with a threat to “kneel on” one of them. They also said a man tried to make a joke out of "I can't breathe," which is what George Floyd said as he was being killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
In a press release Friday, Bennington police said they are seeking information from the public about the incident, asking people with information to call Sgt. Jason Burnham at 802-442-1030.
According to the release, the BPD received a report Thursday that "four females were verbally harassing the complainant's daughter and niece while they were on the docks. The four females left prior to the arrival of the police. The investigating officer is still attempting to identify and speak with all parties involved to determine if any criminal violations took place."
No further information was provided.
Since the Paran board has said it cannot provide staff and resources for the beach and picnic area this summer, vehicle access to the recreation area will apparently remain blocked off for the time being, though that could change later this month. Prior to the incident and earlier incidents at the lake this spring, the gate had remained open but the beach area was not staffed.
“Due to COVID-19 and the restrictions of the [governor’s emergency orders], Paran Recreations cannot provide the staff and resources it usually does during the summer season,” Lamson's statement read.
Because of the incident Thursday, "and other dangerous behaviors taking place at the lake, we have no choice but to close access to Paran Recreations property," the release states.
Access will be closed off immediately, Lamson wrote, and trespassers will be reported to the police. The gate was locked on Friday afternoon.
Paran board member Mindy Borden said later Friday that the board did not open the beach area this season because the rules required by the state in light of COVID-19 were lengthy and seemed "impossible to follow." That's primarily, she said, because it would require the mostly teenage staff to police social distancing requirements, keep bathrooms disinfected and perform other duties required under the current state rules.
However, she said the Paran board plans to revisit whether to reopen the lake area in mid-June, when a further loosening of the state's requirements for recreation areas is expected.
Normally, she said, the lake is open on weekends after Memorial Day and open all week after high school students graduate.
Bennington Police were called Thursday and were investigating the incident. Emails sent Friday to police, Town Manager Stuart Hurd and Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell seeking more information have not been returned.
“The trustees and board members are deeply saddened that something like this could happen in our community,” Lamson said in the statement. “The Lake Paran board, like the village, does not tolerate racism in any form. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and response of so many patriotic Americans around the country who are crying out for equality and justice under the law; this is the exact opposite of who we are and who we aspire to be.”
Lake Paran’s fishing access site, located across the lake from the swimming area, previously was hit by racist graffiti in an incident reported in January. That site is managed by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and it remained open on Friday.
In addition to people fishing, there were a number of people sitting in chairs along the lake and along the top of the Lake Paran dam.
Contacted Friday by the Banner, Louis Porter, commissioner of Vermont Fish and Wildlife, said of the fishing access, "Public land and public water belong to everybody, and everybody should feel safe to enjoy them."
The state wants everyone to feel safe and welcome in access areas, Porter said, adding, "We will not tolerate" behavior that is racist in any manner.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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