House lawmakers consider mascot bill | Local News

MONTPELIER — Members of the House Education Committee got their first look at the Senate’s mascot bill last week.

The bill, p.139, passed the Senate earlier this month and was referred to the House Education Committee. If passed, it would require all public and independent K-12 schools in Vermont to adopt a policy addressing problematic branding, including sports team mascots and nicknames.

Under the bill, the Agency of Education would create, by August, a model policy that would “prohibit school branding that directly or indirectly references or stereotypes the likeness, features, symbols, traditions or other characteristics that are specific to the race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity of any person or group or persons or organizations associated with the repression of others.”

Local school boards would be required to adopt the AOE’s policy or develop their own by January 2023.

School branding materials that do not comply with the policy would be allowed if they were purchased prior to January 2023 and if new branding was selected by May 2023.

House committee members were joined by Senate Education Committee Chair Brian Campion, D-Bennington, Wednesday for a walkthrough and initial discussion.

“We want students to be able to enter (school) buildings and feel safe, respected and not persecuted in any way,” he said.

The current bill doesn’t explicitly define what types of branding would be classified as problematic, or which specific schools currently would not be in compliance; Campion said those details would be worked out by the AOE.

“To have the Agency of Education as the final arbiter of these things made the most sense to us,” he said.

The bill also proposes a process for members of the public to file a complaint about a school mascot or nickname.

Campion acknowledged some critics of the bill in the Senate argued the issue was a local matter best left to school boards. Campion countered that argument, citing AOE Secretary Dan French who stated it was a statewide issue because it was something that was making students uncomfortable.

“It translates to bullying, mistreating people, etc., throughout the country when you have these kinds of mascots and these kinds of things that are put forward by adults as seen as acceptable,” said Campion.

Rep. Casey Toof, R-St. Albans, asked what penalties might be incurred if a school board refused to comply.

While the initial bill penalized schools that did not comply by barring them from competing in Vermont Principals’ Association-sanctioned events, Campion said senators didn’t feel the punishment was appropriate.

“These are adults that need to figure this out, and we thought, no, let’s not penalize kids in any way,” he said.

Campion said it was unclear what penalties, if any, there would be, noting the AOE would make that determination when it develops the model policy.

Toof also asked about how much it might cost schools to change their branding.

Campion acknowledged that number could be high, but said the bill doesn’t include any funding to help offset those costs. He encouraged House members to explore that option.

Last fall, an ad hoc committee of Rutland City Public School Commissioners tasked with exploring the cost of purchasing new uniforms as part of its mascot rebranding effort estimated a price tag of around $158,000.

Rep. Terri Lynn Williams, R-Essex-Caledonia, who said she comes from “Indian descent,” argued that such mascots are not viewed as disrespectful by everyone.

She cited Danville High School’s “Indians” mascot, which was retired last year. She said, for her, the mascot represented “strength and determination and fight.”

Williams said she wasn’t convinced lawmakers had enough “data” to compel schools change their mascots.

“You talk to your friends, you talk to your neighbors, you talk to people around, and they don’t feel that offense,” she said.

Rep. John Arrison, D-Weathersfield-Cavendish, said he was reluctant to support the bill without first seeing the AOE’s model policy.

He suggested the review process school boards undertake would benefit from extensive community engagement.

Rep. Larry Cupoli, R-Rutland, expressed a desire to hear from more students, and said he’d like to invite players and coaches from various Rutland High School athletic teams to testify.

Over the past two years, Rutland City Public Schools has been embroiled in a divisive mascot debate. Last year, the School Board replaced the “Raider” name and arrowhead logo with “Ravens;” however, a new slate of commissioners ultimately reversed that decision in January.

Committee Chair Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, and other representatives agreed, but added it was also important to get a broad view on the issue to determine whether it was something to be addressed locally or at the state level.

“Let’s not talk about your particular mascot. Let’s talk about who’s making decisions,” said Webb.

Williams further argued that while she supported the idea of ​​equity, she wondered whether this particular matter was simply a trendy social issue driven by young people that may end up being reversed in years to come.

“This is a snapshot in time. And we’re letting a snapshot of people make some pretty big decisions,” she said.

Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, countered that the recognition that some mascots can be harmful is a sign of progress.

“If there’s a kiddo walking into a building every day and seeing a mascot painted on a wall that is hurtful or harmful to that kiddo, and that’s not something we would have thought about or blinked an eye about 30 or 40 years ago, then that’s progress,” she said.

Williams agreed with James that such progress was good, however, she argued that all children face adversity and need to be taught to be resilient.

As an example, she recounted her experience as a child of being bullied for having red hair and being left handed. She said her mother encouraged her to have the strength to take the bullying in stride.

“That’s what I’d rather see, these kids feeling better about who they are and don’t worry about all of the things that offend them,” she said.

James countered that the mascot issue was systemic one.

“What we’re talking about here is a system in which a school is allowed, as a policy, to have a mascot that’s offensive,” she said.

James noted Williams might have felt differently if her school had a mascot with red hair and freckles displayed on team uniforms.

While Williams said she personally might have enjoyed that, she agreed with James, stating, “You’re right; it’s a system, as opposed to an individual’s situation.”

Across the country, 20 other state legislatures have enacted or are considering laws addressing the use of Native-themed mascots in K-12 schools, according to a state activity tracker on the National Congress of American Indians website.

Last year, Colorado, Nevada and Washington enacted bans.

Around the Northeast, Maine passed a law banning the use of Native-themed mascots and names in 2019 and bills have been introduced in Massachusetts and New York.

Connecticut also passed a law stating that municipalities with schools that use Native-themed mascots or names will lose grant funding from the state’s two tribal casinos.

Earlier this year, New Hampshire lawmakers introduced a bill prohibiting the use of Native American mascots in public schools, colleges and universities.

In addition, the US Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced last fall the creation of a task force to review and replace any names from federal lands that are deemed derogatory, including the term “squaw.”

In recent years, several states have passed legislation prohibiting use of “squaw” in place names, including Montana, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota, according to the department.

Campion noted Haaland’s efforts to the House Education Committee.

“This is a moment in our country’s history where we’re assessing what’s around us (and) the negative impacts of it,” he said.

jim.sabataso @rutlandherald.com

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