Bob Walsh speaks at Wednesday's South Burlington School Board meeting.
Whatever the intentions were when South Burlington High School adopted "rebels" as a nickname after the school opened in 1961, the moniker should go because of what it represents now, a man told the school board.
"It's associated with the racist policies of the Confederacy and we can't, you can't, get away from that," said Bob Walsh, a retired South Burlington High School teacher. (Walsh is no relation to this reporter.)
Walsh recalled an era when Confederate flags decorated school buses and a Captain Rebel mascot strolled onto the field at football games to the tune of "Dixie." He said the school district did not go far enough when, about twenty years ago, officials announced a compromise decision to technically drop the rebels as mascot and move away from Confederate images — but to allow the moniker to persist as a nickname.
Controversy over the nickname, which is plastered on scoreboards, banners and the school website, resurfaced this summer in the wake of national debate over South Carolina's decision to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol.
Residents of South Burlington have debated the rebels issue heatedly via posts on Front Porch Forum. Some maintain the moniker is racist and others say it's a harmless nickname that has not been associated with the Confederate flag on the campus for decades. But only Walsh spoke publicly Wednesday night.
The South Burlington School Board took no action. Board members and Superintendent David Young said they want more public input before making any decision. The topic will be warned for discussion at a school board meeting in September, and school officials will reach out for broad community input Young said. He said he has received emails and calls offering opinions both pro and con.
In his comments to the board, Walsh suggested the origin of the nickname might have been a reference to rivalries between South Burlington High School and Burlington High School. There are other accounts of how it started, as well.
Alan Boutilier, a 1964 grad, maintained in an email to the school board chair that the mascot was inspired by the film Rebel Without a Cause starring heartthrob James Dean.
"So you, your board members and the citizens of South Burlington can rest assured that there were no racist motivations attached to this name," Boutilier wrote.
Regardless of the origins, yearbook photos show students holding the Confederate flag in the 1970s. Walsh and others, including South Burlington High School principal Patrick Burke, say images of the Confederacy were definitely used in connection with the mascot in the past.
Still, some alums, including school board member Julie Beattie, say they never associated the rebels moniker with the South. "I have a lot of respect for what you're saying and I do think we need to gather some more opinions about it," Beattie told Walsh. "But I don't think that most of the students at South Burlington High School associate this with the Confederacy."
Burke attended the meeting and, like other school leaders, indicated he wants more discussion. The question is whether the school has effectively moved away from the moniker's association with the Confederacy and rebranded the nickname, he said. "If we have, we're fine," he said. "If we haven't, we've got to figure something out."