Senate Education Committee Votes to Advance Mascot Bill | Off Message

Senate Education Committee Votes to Advance Mascot Bill


The scoreboard at Rutland High School in the fall of 2021 - FILE: ALISON NOVAK ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
  • The scoreboard at Rutland High School in the fall of 2021
The Vermont Senate Education Committee voted 5-1 on Thursday to advance S.139, a bill that would require schools to adopt a policy prohibiting mascots or team names that directly or indirectly reference or stereotype a racial or ethnic group.

The bill calls for the Vermont Agency of Education to work with the Vermont School Boards Association and other groups to develop a "model school nondiscriminatory branding" policy by August 1 of this year. “School branding” is defined as “any name, symbol or image used by a school as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, team name, slogan, motto or other identifier.”

School boards for both public and independent schools would be required to either adopt the state’s policy or create one of their own that is “at least as comprehensive” by January 1, 2023. Schools that violate the policy would be given until May 1 of that year to select new branding to take effect in the 2023-2024 school year.

It's unclear how the state would enforce the policy.

Bills to ban discriminatory mascots were introduced in both the House and the Senate this legislative biennium amid a polarizing debate in Rutland City schools about the district's Raiders moniker.

In 2020, school commissioners there voted to ditch the name after a group of students and alumni presented evidence showing that the mascot had historically been linked to crude and stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans.

But following a prolonged debate, a new group of school board members voted last month to reinstate the Raiders name. Some state officials believe more uniform rules could avoid such local conflicts.

“The mascot issue is one that … just totally consumes a community … and builds such animosity on both sides," Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) said in committee earlier this month.
In testimony to the education committee last week, Education Secretary Dan French — who has typically supported local control in educational matters — said the state needed to get involved in the mascot issue, which he linked to broader problems of  hate speech and racism.

“The state has an interest in ensuring schools are inclusive, and the whole concept of equal opportunity is built on the premise that schools are open to all and should feel welcoming,” French said. “It isn’t a local control issue. [Local school districts] are not empowered to discriminate or create conditions that are adverse to the state’s goal [of] education. So the state has a responsibility.”

A number of Indigenous people testified, or provided written statements, in support of the bill. The state recognizes four Vermont tribes — the Elnu Abenaki, the Nulhegan Abenaki, the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation, and the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi.

Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, testified earlier this month that Native American mascots are problematic and do not honor Indigenous people.

“White Europeans created the mascots. We didn’t. So they’re the only ones that can take them away,” Steven said. “We didn’t tell somebody else to use imagery that doesn’t belong to them, that belongs to another culture. They decided to do that on their own … Do we like it? No. Do we think it’s morally right? No.”

On February 10, Judy Dow — an Abenaki educator who is executive director of Gedakina, an organization that supports Indigenous women and their families and helps to preserve cultural traditions — told the committee that state intervention could prevent more division at the local level. Racist mascots harm all students, Dow said.

State legislatures in Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire are also considering mascot bills. And in recent years, at least seven states, including Maine, Washington and Colorado, have enacted laws banning Native American mascots.

South Burlington changed its name from the Rebels to the Wolves in 2017 after students spoke against the nickname's connections to the Confederacy. And last year in Chester, the local school board ditched Green Mountain Union High School's mascot logo — a profile of a Native American person wearing a feather headdress — but decided to keep its name, the Chieftains.

According to a presentation by state Board of Education chair Oliver Olsen, 20 Vermont high schools, or 35 percent, have mascots that represent groups of people. Some of those names include the Marauders, the Spartans, the Rangers and the Patriots. Three high schools, including Rutland, use Raiders as their mascot.

It is unclear how many of these mascots would violate a nondiscriminatory branding policy.

Earlier in the month, the Senate Ed Committee considered a proposal from Olsen, who suggested creating a process that would allow someone or an organization to file an objection to a school’s mascot or branding. The State Board of Education would then direct the district's school board to conduct a review and decide whether they would advocate for keeping — or changing — the mascot. The school board would then submit a mascot proposal to the state board for approval.

But in his testimony, French said he believed Olsen's proposal was too complex and process-heavy. He suggested that the Agency of Education create a model policy, which would function similarly to the state’s 2016 harassment, hazing and bullying policy — where Vermont public and independent schools are required to adopt the state’s policy or create their own, more stringent, one. The education committee ultimately decided to go with French's proposal.

Sen. Joshua Terenzini (R-Rutland) was the sole "no" vote on moving the bill forward. During committee discussion, Terenzini suggested that removing Rutland's arrowhead logo but keeping the Raiders name would have been “a nice compromise.”

The full Senate will vote on the bill after next week's break.