On May 24, 2023

Green Mountain school board stands by ‘Chieftains’ name, drawing resignations

 

By Kate O’Farrell and Patrick Crowley, VTDigger

In a vote that led to multiple resignations, the Green Mountain Unified School District upheld the “Chieftains” name for its high school mascot during a meeting on Thursday night, May 18, in Chester.

According to an emailed statement from board chair Deb Brown, the board voted 6-5 that the “Chieftains” name did not violate a state policy that intends to ban racist and offensive school mascots.

“The Board expects to provide a written decision in the coming days, to include a summary of facts and basis for its decision, as called for in the policy,” Brown said in the statement. 

The vote followed months of public debate and at least two other school board votes involving the “Chieftain,” which critics say represents a racist misappropriation of Indigenous culture — and a violation of a new state law that bans offensive mascots. 

Initially, Thursday’s vote was a 5-5 tie, according to reporting by the Chester Telegraph. Brown broke the tie, voting to keep the name. After the results, two board members who were opposed to the name, Dennis Reilly and Kate Lamphere, resigned and left the meeting. 

The Telegraph reported that another board member, Katie Murphy, then protested that the use of a double-negative in the wording of the question led her to vote incorrectly. But with two members already off the board, the vote result would not have changed in a re-vote. Murphy also resigned on Thursday night, but reportedly asked to rescind that decision.

Superintendent Lauren Fierman told the Telegraph that she resigned her position, but will stay on until a replacement is found. Fierman cited her opposition to the “Chieftains” name in her decision to leave.

Fierman oversees two merged districts — Green Mountain and Ludlow Mount Holly districts — under the name Two Rivers Supervisory Union.

VTDigger could not reach Fierman and the two resigned board members on Friday.

In response to a request for comment on the resignations, Brown referred to recordings of the meeting, which were not posted online as of Friday afternoon.

In an interview earlier this month, Green Mountain graduate Laurel King, who now attends the University of Vermont, said the moniker has at times spurred racist behavior among fans and is a source of shame. She refuses to wear gear from her alma mater. 

“I would be embarrassed to be associated with the one public school in Vermont that continues to hold on to their racist mascot,” King said. 

King said she and another student lobbied the school board to retire the mascot when she was still a student. 

“This was before the state had stepped in with the mandate and all, and we thought it would be an opportunity for Green Mountain to sort of be a changemaker in Vermont and just step out in front of law, and do what we believe was the inclusive and right thing before it was necessary,” she said.

After the school board removed the “Chieftain” image but kept the name in October 2021, the Legislature passed Act 152 in 2022. The law required Vermont schools to adopt a “nondiscriminatory school branding policy” by the start of this year, aiming to eliminate the use of offensive and stereotypical branding at schools around the state. 

In accordance with the new law, the Green Mountain school board voted 7-2 in January to eliminate use of the “Chieftain” mascot entirely — both name and image. But soon after, some district residents circulated an online petition to reverse the decision and bring the Chieftain back to the school, garnering 500 signatures. The petition, which is still online, cites tradition, history and alternate definitions of “chieftain” outside of Indigenous culture, despite the headdress originally associated with the mascot.

On Feb. 16, the school board voted 6-4 to reinstate the name, though not the image. At that meeting, school board vice chair Adrienne Williams, who voted in the majority, said the state law on offensive mascots “has absolutely no enforcement clause. So even if we were to be found, you know, out of order, nothing happens. No fines, no loss of funding, nothing.” 

At the meeting, Brown gave her reasons for the second vote on the mascot image, citing a lack of clarity in the January discussion.  

“There are several of us that do not feel that the way the vote happened last meeting, it didn’t sit well with us. Members of the community were not given notice in advance to be able to be heard,” Brown said in February. 

Also during that meeting, an eighth-grade student at Green Mountain Union High School, Honore Hazen, stood before the board and recounted her experience with racism at the school, including finding graffiti of the N-word in the bathroom. Her grandmother Beverly Hart said graffiti of swastikas remained on school buses, even after they had been reported. 

“It is embarrassing for me to continuously have to report these incidents,” Honore said at the meeting. “People whisper the N-word when I walk by. People repeatedly say it in the halls, at lunch, and on the bus.”

Debate around the mascot has continued throughout the year. In an email earlier this month, Williams said “the reactions have been (a) mixture of differing viewpoints, as one would expect in a situation like this.”

In any case, the votes earlier this year didn’t change much, some parents and students said in interviews earlier this month. 

“They said they were going to retire the mascot image but they didn’t. It was still all over the place,” said Carrie Roy King, a district resident and parent.

When the school board reversed its decision to remove the mascot entirely, Roy King filed a formal complaint with the state, as Act 152 allows.   

Elias Stowell-Aleman graduated from Green Mountain last year. He said that while many students wanted the mascot changed during his senior year, there were years in which the mascot elicited racist behavior at sporting events. 

“There were people that would come and wear headdresses or, like, chant in some very racist and stereotypical ways, but I think that, like, passed when I was in middle school,” Stowell-Aleman said. 

Stowell-Aleman said he wasn’t shocked at the school board’s reversal, which he says echoes its actions in the highly publicized debate Green Mountain faced in 2016, when a transgender student was denied access to the bathroom of their gender. 

“It’s the same kind of process where change is supposed to be made and then change is delayed for a very long time. I can’t say I was surprised,” Stowell-Aleman said.

Green Mountain is not the only school engaged in a mascot debate. In Danville, the Indians became the Bears in late 2021. In South Burlington, the school retired the Rebels mascot and introduced the Wolves to the school. In Brattleboro, the Colonels mascot appears to be on the way out, but in Townshend, after a student study, Leland & Gray is keeping its Rebel mascot for the time being, while encouraging students to come up with a new one. And locally, the Rutland Raiders, after much back-and-forth with “Ravens,” decided to drop it altogether and be ‘Rutland.’

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