Thursday October 29, 2015
After months of listening to divergent public opinion and weighing the options regarding a potential change for the South Burlington Rebels nickname, the school board voted unanimously October 21 to keep the Rebel name. Audience members present for the final decision voiced both support and displeasure with the outcome.
At issue during the ongoing debate is the meaning of the Rebel moniker, and whether it continues to hold connections to the racism of the Confederacy. The school district banned the Rebel mascot along with the battle flag and all symbols of the Confederacy 20 years ago, but some have argued that this is not enough, and that by keeping the name, its historical ties are not erased. This has become a divisive issue in the city with both sides voicing strong opinions.
Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald set the stage for the evening by saying that it might have been easy to dismiss the concerns that were raised about the Rebel name since the decision had been made years ago to eliminate any imagery of the Confederate South. She extended the board’s appreciation to the community for all of the feedback they received. In addition to community members and students speaking out at meetings, board members received over 150 e-mails and phone calls, and had many informal grocery store and dentist office conversations. “Some have described this as a ‘no win’ situation, but the dialogue that has resulted is a win already,” Fitzgerald said, “It forces us to take stock of where we are as a community.”
South Burlington High School Principal Patrick Burke offered his thoughts Wednesday night. Burke pointed to the front of the high school where the words ‘building a proud tradition’ are displayed. He honed in on the word ‘building,’ and said, “That word was intentional ... it means we’re always getting better ... at no point do we step back and say, we’re done.” Burke acknowledged that the school is not free from challenges of race and intolerance, but the interaction he has the privilege of witnessing daily between young people gives him hope for the future. “When bad things happen, I ask what can we do, how can we be better? When good things happen, I ask what can we do, how can we be better? There’s always an opportunity to learn and get better,” Burke said.
Board members had the opportunity to express their opinions and each read from thoughtfully prepared statements. While all were in agreement that the Rebels name should remain, they each arrived at that conclusion from different perspectives.
Dan Fleming’s children went through the city’s school system in the late 70s and early 80s. Even though he is for preserving the name, he believes it is important to develop a guiding committee made up of parents, students, and community members who would determine what the word Rebel means for the school district. “It should not deny the past, good or ill, but should use history as its platform from which to develop its counsel,” he said.
Julie Beatty, a South Burlington High School graduate herself, has found that the name has worked to unite students. She noted that the district aspires to teach students to be sensitive and respectful of each other’s unique differences, to stand up for themselves, and to rebel against injustice and prejudice. She said, “words or labels don’t define a district, ” and that to avoid misunderstanding , labels must be embraced within the context of their usage.
Patrick LeDuc commented that the district is working to define the name Rebel in a positive light. He said, “The power of our students, teachers and administration to use the moniker to educate all of us in a way that our actions, not just our words, dictate how we all are viewed.”
Martin LaLonde said that people can both “legitimately be offended and legitimately celebrate” the name. As he expressed his desire to keep the name, he added the caveat that the definition needs to be “crystal clear” so that people don’t jump to a conventional way of thinking of the name.
Finally, Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald shed some light on what informed her decision. She has studied the challenges of multiculturalism in a UVM program which tests the notion of institutional racism, and she is also part of a cultural competency steering committee. She has done a lot of research, and has read resident Bob Walsh’s book, “Through White Eyes: Color and Racism in Vermont.” Fitzgerald acknowledged the necessity of improving awareness, and of becoming more culturally competent, adding, “there are many positive identifying aspects of the name.”
After the board unanimously decided to preserve the name, they opened the floor for public comment. Several individuals voiced their strong disagreement with the decision.
Long time resident Jim Leddy said, “This was a teachable moment and is now a missed opportunity . . . saying the word is benign is a case of historical amnesia. To have a name that offends anyone in the community, should offend all of us. When a name is offensive, you cannot sanitize it.”
Mary Brown-Guillory, from the Champlain Valley NAACP recalled her daughter being at South Burlington High School in the 90s and having to hear Dixie being played and watching the mascot wave the Confederate flag. She recalled the police having to escort them to their cars after the game because they felt unsafe. Brown-Guillory said, “Nothing you said tonight has been inclusive . . . you would be shameful if you could hear the cheers your cheerleaders used to say . . . what do you want the legacy to be in years to come? I am requesting you make a choice for the future and the future of children.” Brown-Guillory added that her organization will also be lobbying any business who supports South Burlington Schools to remove their support.
Resident David Duell supported the board’s decision and volunteered to be on the guiding committee. “As Rebels, we hold our heads high,” Duell said, “I’ve never met a Rebel that puts his head in the sand. Just like Bernie said, we’ve heard enough about Hillary’s e-mails, I think South Burlington has heard enough about the Rebels name . . . how far is political correctness going to go?”
Young was directed by the board to devise a guiding committee around the name and to provide updates to the board. “This is ongoing work for us,” Young said.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent