By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
In the latest of a long-running back-and-forth over the Rutland High School mascot, residents addressed the Rutland city board of school commissioners at a forum Tuesday night, June 22.
“We are here at this public forum to address an issue that has been on everybody’s mind,” said board clerk Erin Shimp, who led the meeting in the absence of board chair Hurley Cavacas.
About a dozen residents addressed the board to either praise or condemn a decision made last fall to abandon the former “Raider” mascot, and four wrote letters that board members read aloud. The proposal for the change came to the board last summer through a group of alumni and students, who presented historical research showing racism in the previous mascot’s origins.
Some confusion about the time of the meeting, which started at 5:30, caused some people to miss it, gathering afterward in the parking lot in anticipation of a 6:30 start time, WCAX reported.
In February, the school board approved a new mascot, the Rutland Ravens, picked by students through a months long process. In March, city voters elected a new slate of school board members, many of whom ran on a Raider-centric platform. The board, with its new members, is reviewing decisions from the past six months and will decide whether to reinstate the previous mascot and name.
The decision to switch has become one of the largest sources of political tension in the city since the fall. It prompted outcry from area residents who want to keep the mascot, citing concerns about the cost of rebranding and pride in the mascot’s local legacy.
Proponents of the change have said a new mascot would be a symbol of forward progress for the city, which has been publicly grappling with discussions about racism for years.
All of those opinions were on display Tuesday night. The board did not respond to any of the speakers’ comments, but Shimp said that, with meetings now in person, the decision should not take much longer.
A majority of speakers expressed support for the Ravens mascot, while around five attendees hoped the board would reinstate the Raiders.
Ric Reardon, a Rutland City resident who works in special education, referred to a recent editorial in the Rutland Herald with a headline that read, “We know better now.” He said he has watched over the years as terms that once described special ed students have taken on different meanings.
“We are at a point now where we’re realizing that a change has to be made for the better of the new generation,” he said. “I would implore you to step away from this issue.”
Jacob Pluta, a Rutland High School alumnus who now lives in Mendon, compared the push to reinstate the previous mascot to the “Take Back Vermont” campaign, which expressed disapproval of Vermont’s decision to introduce civil unions. That topic was also particularly heated in Rutland.
“After progress was made, people wanted to go back,” Pluta said. “Look forward, and we have a country where same-sex marriage is recognized across the entire United States.”
The issue has been “really hard for the community,” Pluta said. “I just hope that we can find some peace and move on.”
Sharlyn Anderson, who moved from Nicaragua 11 years ago, said she had endured trauma before moving to Vermont, where she was welcomed. Concerned about the cost of rebranding, she said she doesn’t think the issue isn’t important enough to pursue.
“This is so silly,” she said. “How much is it going to cost you guys to change the name? One million? Two million? Do you know what you could do with that money? Feed the kids that have no food to eat; put up a place where they could get a box of cereal to take home.”
Resident Butch Paul said the board should look to the most recent election, when the city elected board members who have fought to keep the previous mascot. He said he’s upset that the board didn’t immediately reinstate the “Raider” name after the election and was bothered when a board member told him they’ve received many requests to keep the Raven mascot.
“I will remind you that nobody speaks louder than voters,” he said.
Rutland resident Shelly Spooner, whose son attends Rutland schools, argued that the “Raider” symbol is a positive representation of Native Americans (a concept that has been refuted by most local and national Native American groups). She also criticized equity programs in schools.
A brief debacle ensued when Shimp allowed Spooner to continue after she exceeded her two-minute time limit. Audience members called for leadership from Shimp, who told everyone to be quiet.
“I said let her go,” Shimp said. “At this point, let her finish her page and please be respectful of my decision.”
Several students took the microphone, including senior class president Giovanni Falco, who recently organized an event featuring local officials that celebrated the graduating class and the new Ravens mascot, and Sophia Perone, a rising 8th grader at Rutland Middle School.
“This issue may be small, but it makes a big impact in the end,” Perone said. “If nothing ever changed, we would still have slavery, and women would not have the right to vote. Change can be good if change is done with consideration. Change takes time and courage.”