By Katy Savage
After Vermont school districts have grappled with how to deal with offensive school mascots, a new law may prevent schools from having mascots with racial or ethnic ties.
The Senate Education Committee discussed a bill on Tuesday, Feb. 8 that would prohibit schools from having offensive mascots and branding.
Bill S.139 would specifically prevent a public school from “having or adopting a name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to a racial or ethnic group, individual, custom or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, or team name of the school.”
Any school that has a prohibited mascot within three years of the bill’s passage would be ineligible to participate in Vermont Princpal’s Associations sanctioned events, which includes most sports and competitions.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Bethel) last year after he said he was asked to by an Indigenous group.
“I think it’s the mood of the time,” McCormack said in a phone interview. “We’ve been asleep and now we’re awake.”
McCormack said he’s received several phone calls since he introduced the bill. One man was so animated he ended the phone call with “Go Raiders,” referencing the Rutland High School Raiders mascot, McCormack said.
Mascots have been debated locally and across the nation, with some unwilling to break decades of history associated with school branding and others demanding change. In Rutland, the high school mascot has caused public outcry and largely divided the city.
The Rutland mascot changed to the Ravens briefly in 2020 before a new School board voted to change it back to the controversial Raiders last month. The mascot has caused widespread debate.
McCormack said he was more concerned about the students.
“All over the state students are demanding that the schools clean up their act,” McCormack said. “There are kids who are tired of being insulted.”
McCormack said he’s heard arguments that mascots with indigenous names or branding are meant as an honor, but McCormack pushed back at that.
“To be mascotted is demeaning,” McCormack said. “If it’s intended as an honor, it’s demeaning.”
Rutland school board members on both sides of the issue said they’ve received threats for their stance on issues and the mascot has distracted the school board from other tasks. One meeting in December abruptly ended when school board members declined to approve the agenda with the mascot topic.
“It’s sad,” Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland, said. “It’s pitting people against each other.”
Hooker, the vice chair of the Senate Committee on Education, formerly taught in Rutland. Hooker’s husband was also a teacher at Rutland High School.
“We were Raiders,” Hooker said by phone. “We didn’t feel like we were being offensive at the time, but when I look back at the history of the mascot, it makes me understand that we unintentionally hurt these people and that we need to stop that activity.”
Hooker said she’s asked for McCormack’s bill to include an educational component for teachers, students and community members to understand why some mascots are offensive. She hoped the bill would alleviate pressure on school boards.
“We’re just repeating the same arguments over and over and taking time from important issues,” Hooker said. “To put it at a level where local school boards can be relieved of their responsibilities of going through these debates and bringing it to the State Board of Education would be a step in the right direction.”
But Sen. Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland, who is also on the Senate Education Committee, is strongly opposed to discussing it further. “My position hasn’t changed — I believe in local control and local government,” he said by phone. “I believe these issues are best left to municipalities and school boards.”
He said further discussion in the Senate would take too much time from other issues, like it did for the Rutland School Board.
“I’m firmly opposed to continuing to talk about this issue because I’ve learned first hand what this can do to a local community,” Terenzini said. “It’s going to get us off mission and off course.”
The issue has also divided students. Rutland High School students were asked about the issue by VTDigger’s Underground Project. While some had a preference for the Raiders, others liked the Ravens mascot, but many were indifferent. Students largely agreed the School Board acted “childish” and immature about the issue.
“I feel like it’s disappointing and immature of (the board) and it makes all of Rutland look like a laughing stock,” said senior Michiah Boyle. “I feel like the morale has been up since the Raider name change but nothing drastic has changed.”
Michael Griffin, a junior, said he liked the Ravens mascot.
“I have watched a few school board meetings and I’m disappointed in how they treat each other, and even students,” he said.
Rep. William Notte (D-Rutland) introduced a similar bill in the House, which is based on a 2019 law in Maine.
“I take it as a sign people throughout the state are looking at this issue as a whole and thinking, ‘we need to move on,’” Notte said.
Notte’s wife Alison sits on the school board in Rutland and has strongly advocated for the Ravens. Alison has been at the center of much of the controversy.
Like Hooker, Notte hoped a law would take pressure off local school boards to focus on other priorities.
“We’re providing security to the school you’re not going to have to change this every time the school board changes.”
Oliver Olsen, the chair of the Vermont Board of Education, proposed statutory criteria for reviewing mascots.
A new Feb. 9 draft of the bill would also prohibit mascots from referencing any “race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity of any person or group of persons.”
All school branding would be approved by the State Board of Education. Anyone from the public would be able to request by Aug. 31 of this year asking the board to review a mascot. The school board would then be required to conduct a historical review of the mascot and submit the information to the state.
There will potentially be “transition funding” for schools that voluntarily acknowledge problematic branding to help them defray the cost of adopting new branding.
The Senate is expected to discuss the bill again on Feb. 16. It’s unclear if the State Board of Education can step in even without a requested review for mascots that clearly violate the guidelines.
McCormack was hopeful his bill would become law: “I am very encouraged,” McCormack said.