In a decision that showcased a deep ideological rift among members, the Rutland City School Board voted 6-5 late Tuesday to reinstate the Raiders moniker for its sports teams.
The move reversed a 6-4 board decision made 15 months ago to retire the name because it perpetuated racist stereotypes.
The mascot issue was not initially on the agenda for Tuesday's Rutland City School Board meeting, which lasted five hours. But at its start, board member Tricia O'Connor introduced a resolution to reinstate the Raiders name.
Last February, the board votedto adopt the Ravens mascot, a name chosen by students. But school officials have since taken little action to officially change signage and uniforms, and the board has remained mired in public squabbles around the topic.
During the final hour of Tuesday's meeting — following subdued presentations around the school budget and other funding — board members got emotional during the discussion about bringing back the Raiders name.
"This is a bad idea for many reasons," said Kevin Keifaber, who made the resolution to get rid of the Raiders mascot in 2020. He reminded fellow members that the original decision to change the name came after a large group of current and former students, as well as community members, told the board that the Raiders name "has a long history of being associated with negative stereotypes of Native American people."
"We wanted to make sure that our students felt welcomed in our school," Keifaber said. "To go back to the Raider name is to tell those students ,'We don't really care what you think.' And that's a really bad thing for a school board to be saying, because we should be making all of our students feel welcomed in our schools."
Keifaber said that making the change also sends "a very unwelcoming message" to the minorities and progressive thinkers that Rutland is trying to attract to its community to promote economic revitalization.
Stephanie Stoodley, who was elected to the school board last year on a platform of returning the Raiders name, said some students' perspective had been "neglected" in the board's decisions to change the name from Raiders to Ravens.
"The non-Raiders have said it's racist and it's affecting our students," Stoodley said. "What about the students who want to keep the Raiders? What about the students who think the Ravens are harmful? Why are those students being silenced? ... Go to a Rutland football game on a Friday night. Those student body are not saying Ravens. They are saying Raiders."
But the board's student representative, Isabella LaFemina, a Rutland High School senior, pushed back on Stoodley's characterization. "I know quite a lot of people in quite a lot of different circles who say, first of all, they just want it to be over, and second of all, they understand where we are coming from ... that it is, at this point, racist and dividing us," LaFemina said. "I don't think there's any sort of compromise we can make when it comes to a topic like this ... I just really want to say, from the student body ... I think it's time for this to be over."
Raiders supporters, though, were unwilling to let it go.
"As I have always preached to my children, two who are in the school system, you can choose to be offended by something," board member O'Connor said. "Anybody can be offended by anything. It's how you choose to live your life. If you're looking to be offended, I can guarantee, something's going to offend you and that is not a way we can operate."
But board member Dena Goldberg said that perspective concerned her.
"Experiences that people have in the community are not choices, necessarily," Goldberg said. "If we do not believe people that they're having situations that are not favorable because of who they are ... we will never be able to move forward with any of our equity, inclusion and curriculum and education and all the wonderful words that have been voiced here today.
"There have been experiences in this community for people of different types of background that have been harmful. This is not a choice. It will never be a choice," Goldberg continued. "We can choose to ignore it, we can choose to dismiss it, however, those experiences will continue to occur."
With thedecision to bring back the Raiders name, Rutland is swimming against the tide of local and national voices that have opposed using Native American names and imagery as mascots.
The National Football League's Washington Redskins became the Washington Football Team in 2020. Maine and Colorado have banned Native American mascots at public schools.
In recent years, a similarly contentious conversation played out in South Burlington over its former school mascot, the Rebels. The heated community debate centered on the racially insensitive implications of the nickname due to its roots in the Confederate South. The school board ultimately abandoned the moniker in 2017, though Rebel supporters kept up the fight for many months.
In August 2020, the Vermont Principals' Association issued a statement advising schools to replace mascots with marginalizing, racist or exclusionary elements."
In an emailed statement Wednesday morning, Vermont Principals' Association executive director Jay Nichols stood by his organization's position.
"We realize this is a local decision, but to support a mascot image or name that is racist or discriminatory toward some of the students a school system is serving flies in the face of public schools creating inclusionary environments for all students," the VPA statement said. "We know the administrators in the Rutland City School District and other educators work hard every day to support the students of the district and are disappointed that the school board has made this decision."
Rutland City Public Schools superintendent Bill Olsen, who attended last night's meeting but stayed mum on the mascot issue, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.