By Katy Savage
The Rutland High School’s mascot is back to the Rutland Raiders following a 6-5 school board vote on Tuesday, Jan. 11.
The controversial Raiders mascot, deemed racist by some, was changed to the Ravens in October 2020, but the move widely divided the town and led to a year’s worth of contentious school board meetings.
The meeting on Jan. 11 lasted four-and-a-half hours.
The mascot item was added to the agenda after a motion by Tricia O’Connor. School board members originally voted 5-5 to approve the new agenda item, but Hurley Cavacas, who chairs the school board, broke the tie to allow it. “You represent who put you into office, not your personal opinions,” Cavacas said in an interview after the meeting. “I truly believed the people spoke. I represent them and therefore I voted to bring it back.”
Many have called the school board “dysfunctional” while witnessing screaming matches between members calling each other vulgar names. The mascot issue has also led to the school board not being able to accomplish important tasks, like passing budgets and teachers contracts.
Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss said he hoped the mascot issue was over in an interview after the meeting.
Board of Aldermen President Matt Whitcomb echoed Bliss.
“Some people supported it, some were against it, but really people just want us to move on from it,” Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb said he was optimistic the city would get back to addressing the critical issues facing the school.
But Alison Notte, a school board member, who has been widely opposed to the Raiders mascot, said the issue will continue to brew for years to come.
She said the Raiders mascot doesn’t align with the mission of Rutland High School. “It’s important for me to acknowledge the harm that can be done and has been done,” Notte said. “It’s a bad message to say, ‘we don’t really care.’”
On Jan. 14, days after the meeting, her husband Rep. William Notte (D-Rutland) proposed legislation that would require all Vermont schools to retire racist mascots, nicknames and imagery. The bill is modeled after a bill in Maine.
“I think it’s colossal disappointment that we have backtracked to the Raiders mascot,” William Notte said. “I don’t think that white people get to decide what’s racist.”
He was hopeful his bill would be taken up in committee.
“This is a Legislature that has talked a lot about racial equity and doing things to promote racial equity in our state,” William Notte said, explaining that he wrote his bill because of the harm caused to indigenous communities.
Carol Mcgranaghan, the chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, said she was surprised the mascot has caused so much division in Rutland.
“As a member of the Abenaki community, I am very disappointed that the name was changed back to the Raiders,” McGranagham said. “It is disheartening to see the hard work, consideration and thought students had put into their efforts to change the name to have it reversed. Personally, I don’t feel the mascot honors those of us who have called this home for thousands of years.”
The commission previously issued a statement condemning such mascots.
“These images, words, symbols, and the behavior that accompanies them perpetuate negative stereotypes of indigenous peoples, resulting in significant psychological, social, and cultural consequences, especially for indigenous youth,” according to the statement.
Alison Notte and Cavacas have gone head-to-head on the issue in several meetings. Notte said Cavacas lacks leadership while Cavacas said changing the name from the Raiders to the Ravens was done improperly in the fall of 2020. At that time, Alison Notte was chair of the board.
“Part of the reason (the town has) been divided is because of the way it was handled,” Cavacas said. “If you’re going to do something like that it has to be a community decision. (The board) needs to have community-wide meetings.”
Cavacas said he doesn’t believe the mascot is racist. He was also critical of William Notte’s legislation.
“We’re going to need mascot police,” Cavacas said. “You’re going to have to get rid of the blue devils because the devils are anti-christian. You’re opening up a can of worms that doesn’t need to be opened.”
Cavacas, who has been on the board for 14 years, said he’s not running for election again when his term is up in March.
Throughout the meeting on Jan. 11, school board members constantly interrupted each other. Notte repeatedly called for a point of order and brought a book of Robert’s Rules of Order.
In a later interview, Notte said the last-minute addition of the mascot issue to the agenda wasn’t proper procedure.
One resident, who said she is an alum of Rutland High School, called the board an “embarrassment” to the city.
“It’s like you don’t understand you work for the taxpayers of the city,” she said, while explaining the Raiders best represents the school. “No one says ‘Go Ravens.’ I feel like the teams have an identity crisis. They don’t know who they are because nobody identifies them as Ravens.”
After a half-hour of bickering about the mascot issue, Superintendent Bill Olson asked the board to move on to the agenda. Senior student Isabella LaFemina, a student representative to the school board, had a similar request.
“The board cannot get anything done under these circumstances,” LaFemina said as she read from a written statement. “The board is elected to serve students like me yet we cannot get to important agenda items.”
LaFemina later said the Raiders mascot was racist and divisive, but she was shut down by school board member Stephanie Stoodley.
“You should represent the entire student body and not an individual or segregated group,” Stoodley said.
Cavacas said later he respected LaFemina’s opinion but didn’t think she represented the entire student body. Little has been done at Rutland High School since the board voted on the Ravens name.
Cheerleaders have stopped using some cheers with the Raiders in it, said Alison Notte, but Notte said some students have been critical of the cheerleaders for doing so at games.
Score signs in the gym were changed from the “Raiders” to “Rutland” in the fall. New school uniforms, estimated to cost $100,000, had not been purchased yet.