Thursday February 09, 2017
In a unanimous decision February 1, the school board approved Superintendent David Young’s recommendation to retire the South Burlington Rebels identifier effective August 2017. Board members offered individual statements; each had reversed their viewpoint from 15 months prior when they recommended retaining the Rebel name. A large audience of parents, students, and community members were present at R.M. Central School gymnasium to offer their opinion, for and against the change.
Last fall, discussions regarding the October 2015 decision to keep the Rebel name resurfaced. Those against keeping the Rebel moniker cited its ties to the Confederacy. Others felt that those ties were long gone, since the district had removed their mascot along with all symbols of the Confederacy from school materials more than 20 years ago, using just the name Rebels. The 2015 decision kept the name, but with caveats that included an action plan to ensure the principals of diversity, equity, and inclusion were furthered.
At the February 1 meeting, School Board Chair Patrick Leduc set ground rules for the comment period, encouraging people to be respectful and limit applause. Young kicked off the comments with a thoughtful statement, noting that often in life a crossroads is reached and sometimes the direction in which to turn is unclear, but in other instances, “the direction is so clear that to not act would have lasting negative repercussions.” Young said, “It has become crystal clear to me that the current rebel identifier is interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included in our schools. That is unacceptable to me and should be unacceptable to everyone.” Young added that his recommendation to retire the name was not being made lightly and said he was not unaware of the strong ties many current students and alumni have to the current name.
In arriving at his decision, Young absorbed public and private stories from students, staff, and the community at large. He considered lessons learned though staff training on inherent bias, local and national events, and research from both the Pew Research Center and the American Academy of Pediatrics on the impact of racial bias on children.
Following Young’s statements, Pat Philips who is serving as acting principal of the high school while Principal Patrick Burke is on leave, shared a statement he had recently read to students. Philips noted that we are living in a challenging time and because of that, the need to recognize diversity of expression and the need to treat one another with respect is of paramount importance.
Philips then read a statement submitted by Burke, who noted that the Rebel name is no longer a symbol of the SBHS of today. Burke wrote, “At one time, I admit, it was easier to look beyond the most unfortunate connotations of the Rebel name, but now I cannot look students and staff who are uncomfortable in the eye and say too bad.” Burke’s statement acknowledged the frustration some may have with the prospect of change, but supported Young’s recommendation. “We need to change not because one side has won the argument, but because an argument about something that exists to unify us continues to divide us, we can do better,” Burke wrote.
Board members each read their written statements and all were supportive of Young’s recommendation. Many cited new information including survey results and community input as reasons for their change in position. Student representative to the school board, Isaiah Hines also read a statement, acknowledging that the Rebel name was likely not chosen with the intent of being racist, “but racism is rarely meant or overt, just because you didn’t mean it doesn’t change its harmful effects,” he said.
A number of community members rose to speak—both in support of and against the change. Resident Bob Walsh has been a vocal advocate for the change since the debate began, and supported the board’s decision. He commended the Student Diversity Union for initiating the discussion and for their “remarkable courage.”
President of the Champlain area NAACP Mary Brown-Guillory chided the board for taking 15 months to make a decision “knowing that students were being tortured,” she said. She also commended the students who brought the issue to the forefront of discussions.
Although the audience was largely in support of the proposed change, several individuals, including student athletes, came forward to express a difference of opinion. SBHS student Amy Lafferty, a varsity cheerleading captain said she supported the Rebel name and thought students’ voices should matter the most in making the decision to change. Her fellow captain, Amber Groves, echoed this sentiment saying she is proud to be a Rebel and that while she herself has black ancestry, she does not feel offended by the name.
After the audience response concluded, a motion was made by Elizabeth Fitzgerald to approve Young’s recommendation and was seconded by Martin LaLonde. The motion passed unanimously.
A process regarding a plan to move forward will be devised next. An inventory of items to be changed, along with the costs associated with removing and replacing the Rebel signage and athletic uniforms will begin soon. In addition, a committee will be designated to initiate a thoughtful course of action to retire the name, as well as a mindful way to choose a new identifier and mascot.
Community reactions on both sides of the issue are being debated around town as well as on social media sites. One site strongly endorsed the name change, while another group has recently formed a site to defend the Rebel name and decry the change.
In a recent press release, Leduc, on behalf of the board and district, denounced negative social media and email exchanges, stating, “We can disagree, but we must strive for respectful debate. As individuals, a district, a community, and a state, we must reject and never tolerate any language that is threatening or blatantly racist. Our schools are here to educate and unify.”
The statement acknowledges that the board carefully considered the tradition and school’s long history of being known as the Rebels, and that because it was once quite effective at unifying the school community, many in the community and alumni have an attachment to the Rebel name. But, Leduc wrote, “ the racism historically associated with the Confederacy was not consistent with our mission, and concern about losing a tradition was outweighed by the potential harm caused by that name.”
The complete statements made by the superintendent and board members are available on the district website.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent