RUTLAND — Should the Board of School Commissioners change the Rutland Raider name and logo at the city high school?
While the board itself has already said “yes” — it voted 6-4 to change the Raider name and imagery in October — some members of Rutland’s Board of Aldermen hoped to pose this question to city voters on March’s Town Meeting Day ballot.
While school boards are the only body with the legal authority to change mascot or school nicknames, some aldermen hoped a non-binding vote would influence the school board’s decision.
At the city’s regular board meeting Monday night, after opening the floor to public comments and hearing several arguments for and against the referendum, Rutland’s Board of Aldermen voted against placing the question on the March ballot.
Votes were split in a 5-5 count, but the motion needed a two-thirds majority of seven votes to pass.
The city board’s rejection of the referendum marked the latest victory for those looking to see the mascot change from a name and symbol that presents harmful stereotypes of Native American culture.
Alison Notte, chair of the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners, said before the meeting on Monday that a referendum probably wouldn’t have changed the minds of the six school board commissioners who already voted in favor of the change. Four voted against it, and Notte, as chair, did not vote.
“I could be wrong, but I do not anticipate any of the board members who voted in favor would change their minds based on a non-binding referendum,” she said.
Notte said that in a constitutional democracy, majority rule should be coupled with the protection of minority rights. The Native American population is small in Vermont — partly due to the state’s eugenics movement, during which time 253 Native Americans were forcibly sterilized, according to researchers at the University of Vermont. Notte said the school board should protect their interests, even if the majority disagrees.
“We don’t have the numbers,” she said. “There’s not going to be a bunch of Native Americans flooding the polls to vote to say that they feel this mascot, the moniker, the imagery, is offensive to them.”
Members of the Abenaki tribe, and members of other native tribes who live in Vermont, have supported changing mascots with Indigenous names and imagery.
In a guest editorial for the Montague Reporter, a newspaper in Massachusetts, Melody Brook, a member of the Elnu Abenaki and adjunct professor at Champlain College, explained how Native American mascots harm Indigenous people.
“A mascot that debases more than 500 Nations into a single – and incorrect – stereotype represents more than 400 years of colonialism, and is the symbol for a world that has never cared about their suffering,” she wrote.
In September, the Vermont Principals’ Association also released a statement that encouraged schools to change mascots that do not represent all students.
Decisive action hasn’t bridged the divide
Though presiding boards continue to side in favor of changing the mascot, the split among Rutland aldermen represents the continued turmoil in the city, which doesn’t show signs of letting up.
The board’s decision to block the referendum also marked the latest in a series of defeats for members of the public who oppose the change.
“It’s definitely not the end of the conversation. People are just getting going at this point,” said Tom DePoy, a Rutland City alderman who has led the movement to oppose the change — and who first suggested the city place a referendum on the March ballot.
DePoy said he’s sent hundreds of signs to residents who want to keep the mascot.
Among his primary arguments, DePoy is concerned about the cost of changing the mascot. Through conversations with local businesses, he estimates that the total cost of changing the mascot name and imagery could be more than $200,000 between new uniforms, the scoreboard, and a new gym floor and turf field. No official cost or timeline for the change has been determined by the school board, however.
DePoy said he received calls from a number of residents Thursday morning inquiring about remaining options for those who advocate for keeping the mascot. He’s hoping Rutland City Mayor David Allaire, who supports keeping the Raider name and imagery, will request that the Board of Alderman place the referendum on the ballot in March. The mayor would have to convince the board that the referendum is in the interest of “public good.”
“My argument for the public good would be that this issue right now is tearing the city apart, and the school board has acted without properly involving the public,” DePoy said. At Monday’s meeting, he said that the school board’s meetings for public comment, held over Zoom, were difficult to access because of the platform and required pre-registration.
Allaire said he doesn’t intend to request that the referendum be placed on the ballot. Such a decision would still need six votes of approval from aldermen, and he doesn’t think he has the numbers to push it through.
“The decision was made by the school board, which is their purview of whether or not they wanted to go ahead and change that,” he said.
The mayor said he believes most Rutland City residents oppose the change. When asked how statements from Native tribes who advocate for abolishing mascots with Indigenous names and imagery should factor into the decision-making of elected officials, Allaire said he hasn’t heard any dissent from Indigenous people.
“I have not been contacted by any Native American group or anyone else to advocate one way or the other,” Allaire said, “and we seem to have our plate very full over here on the municipal side.”
Meanwhile, both school and city board members have heard from city residents, and in several instances, the rhetoric has devolved into harassment and threats.
At Monday’s meeting, Alderman Sam Gorruso said he’d received calls late at night from a constituent who wanted to convince him to vote against the referendum.
In a Facebook video posted on her personal profile, Brittany Cavacas, one of the four school board commissioners who voted against the change, said a woman confronted her in the parking lot of Hannaford’s supermarket in Rutland Town. Cavacas said the woman spit on her and called her a white supremacist. Cavacas said she reported the incident to the Vermont State Police.
And Notte, the school board chair, reports receiving four death threats through anonymous text messages soon after the board voted to change the mascot. She has installed security systems and cameras since receiving the threats, and she said the lives of her family members have been significantly altered. For example, her husband leaves work to take her youngest child to school, and when she arrives home, she remains in her car until her garage doors have closed. The family has asked Rutland City police to add patrols of the neighborhood.
“My daughter was cheering at a football game when I got the first threat,” Notte said. “It’s a small community. People know who you are, and know your whereabouts. The fact that someone would go through those lengths is very concerning.”
Her husband, Rep. William Notte, D-Rutland, said he plans to introduce a bill to the Legislature banning all Indigenous mascots from the state. His idea is based on a law passed in Maine last year. He also thinks the burden of mascot conversations, which are notoriously controversial and often divide communities, should be handled at the state level.
“I don’t think, given what is happening in Rutland, that it is fair to put this on the shoulders of local officials,” he said. “I think we need to honor the requests of Indigenous people and remove mascots they said are hurtful to them, and hurtful to their children. So if this is an issue that we should, and must, take up, the question becomes, given the heated climate, how can we do that safely?”
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