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House advances bill banning offensive school mascots, including Raiders

By Peter D’Auria/VTDigger

The Vermont House gave final approval on Monday, May 9 to a bill intended to ban racist and offensive school mascots, overriding objections that the legislation would erode school districts’ autonomy.

S.139 would direct the Vermont Agency of Education to create a state policy for school branding, including mascots, slogans, logos and sports teams, by August of this year.

That policy would bar schools from having a mascot based on the “race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity of any person or group of persons.” Mascots could not be based on “any person, group of persons, or organization associated with the repression of others.”

The bill directs the Agency of Education to create a process for people to file complaints to their local school board. School boards’ decisions could be appealed to the secretary of education, who would have the ultimate jurisdiction.

In recent years, several Vermont towns have been rocked by debates over whether to keep mascots deemed offensive. South Burlington High School changed nicknames from the Rebels to the Wolves in 2017. Rice and CVU, formerly the Little Indians and Crusaders, are now the Knights and Redhawks. And the Danville Indians are now the Bears.

Lawmakers introduced the mascot bill just days after the Rutland City School Board voted to restore the Raiders, a controversial mascot that many residents believed trafficked in stereotypes about Native Americans. A local effort to retire the Raiders mascot succeeded in 2020, but a new slate of school commissioners restored the previous moniker earlier this year.

Proponents have argued that the statewide measure, which was passed by the Senate in March, would be a key step toward fairness in schools. “This is an important continuation of Vermont’s work around equity and inclusion in our schools and in our broader communities,” Rep. Jana Brown, D-Richmond, said on the House floor Thursday, May 5, citing research about the psychological harm done by offensive mascots to the communities they stereotype.

But critics said the bill would chip away at local officials’ control over their own schools.

“Every year more and more control is taken by this building, and by this town, and by officials in our government in Montpelier,” said Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, where the high school sports teams are also called the Raiders. “And it’s taken from the local communities — our local school boards, our local teachers, our local administrators, and most importantly our local students.”

“It’s arrogant to think that we know better than all of those people who do all of the work at the local level to ensure that their kids are educated,” Scheuermann added.

The bill ultimately passed on a preliminary vote May 5: 96 to 47. A final vote passed in the house in concurrence with the senate on Monday, May 9.

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