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Petitions, Threats & Acrimony: The Fight Over Changing Rutland High's 'Raider' Mascot

Rutland High School entrance
Mr. Prez
/
Wikipedia Commons
Rutland High School is in the midst of grappling with changing the name of its mascot.

Folks in South Burlington can relate to what Rutlanders are grappling with now: whether to change the name of its school mascot, or in the case of Rutland, the name of its sports teams.In 2017, South Burlington dumped its "Rebel" mascot and became “the Wolves” over concerns that the former name evoked a Confederate legacy.

Now a group of current students and alumni at Rutland High School are asking the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners to drop the name “Raiders,” saying the moniker and arrowhead imagery reinforces racist stereotypes of indigenous people.

Since that request was made back in September, there have been petitions circulated to keep the name, claims of threats and harassment by members of the board and contentious meetings at which community members expressed varying opinions:

"I'm in favor of keeping the Raider name and logo."
"The current mascot has no place in a public school because it is not designed to honor the culture it’s taken from."
"Using the mascot of the arrowhead and the Raiders name, does not create an inclusive environment."
"Keep the name alive and make the Raider legacy live on."
"I'm here tonight to speak in support of removing the Rutland mascot and nickname."

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with reporter Jim Sabataso, who covers education for The Rutland Herald. They spoke about how the conversation around Rutland High School’s mascot has been unfolding, and where it could all be heading. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Remind us, how long have Rutland Raiders and the current arrowhead mascot been around? How has it changed?

Jim Sabataso: The Raider name came up, it seems, in the 1930s or 1940s and kind of got adopted by the school and became “the Red Raiders” for quite some time. And then, about 20 years ago or so, it was decided to retire the “red” and retire the chief mascot that was associated with it. Since then, it's just been the arrowhead symbol and the Raider name.

And around that time, they also dropped some of the Tomahawk chants that they did during sporting events and pep rallies in, you know, an attempt to make it a little more inclusive and be culturally sensitive.

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How did this recent push to change the name “Raiders” come about?

Over the summer, some current and former RHS students and alumni got together and began kind of a public awareness campaign, just saying that, you know, it's time for this to be changed.

And then in September, that group made a presentation to the school board. The school board held a public forum the following month, and in about mid-October held a vote, [in] which they voted six to four to retire the Raider name and the arrowhead.

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And they haven't voted to replace it with anything, is that right?

Correct. So what is happening now is, there's a process that the school administrators would go through at the high school, to engage students in envisioning what a new mascot might be, taking characteristics and attributes from community and then bringing all that together, and then synthesizing that into a new mascot.

Meanwhile, though, after that six-to-four vote that you mentioned, there was some community reaction. Some of it was pretty serious, as I understand it. Some board members say they have faced personal threats for how they voted. What can you tell us about that?

School board chair Alison Notte received some threatening text messages, and emails that were threatening physical violence; hate speech, vulgar language. She was the chairwoman; she was the one in support of making the change – one of the members in support of it.

On the other side, Commissioner Brittany Cavacas, was also accosted and physically threatened in a parking lot – at the Hannaford supermarket in Rutland Town. And she was called a white supremacist for voting against the change. So there's a lot of emotion on both sides of that.

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Well, beyond the school board issue, what happened this month that could put this whole question before residents on town meeting day?

There has been a push to get a referendum on the March ballot to hold a citywide vote on the question of whether or not the school should retain the Raider name and arrowhead.

It would be non-binding. This is ultimately a decision that is left in the hands of the school board, but I think people are hoping that if you get that question before people and they vote overwhelmingly, and some are hoping in favor of keeping the Raider name, then the school board may take a second look at it.

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Have they given any indication that they would reverse that decision? As you say, they've already voted six to four to change the name. But let's say the referendum came out, it's non-binding and folks wanted to keep it. Have they given any indication – the board – that they would change their minds?

I really don't see that happening.

The board members who are in favor of making this change have stated the case very clearly and very resolutely. They don't seem to be wavering from this.

They've cited a lot of data to back this up, on how these types of images, names and mascots can be harmful, and how it doesn't align with the district's mission statement and vision statement.

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Seems like the next mile marker, so to speak, on this issue will be town meeting day with that nonbinding referendum. Is that right?

Well, before that, it would have to pass the full board. So the general committee of the Board of Aldermen has voted to send this issue back to the full board.

And at its next meeting, they will take that up and vote whether or not the board would want to put this on the March ballot. It's unclear if they have the votes to get it on the ballot at this point, so if it doesn't go that way, there's always the chance that they could force it on the ballot through petition – the residents could.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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