On Tuesday, the Rutland City Board of School Commissioners voted 6-5 Tuesday to reinstate the Raiders name and arrowhead logo — the culmination of a nearly two-year contentious debate that has divided the School Board and the Rutland community.
But as the dust settles, those who advocated for retiring the Raider name and arrowhead logo remain committed to their cause.
Commissioner Alison Notte presided as board chair when it first retired the name and logo in late 2020 and adopted “Ravens” as the new team name and mascot in early 2021.
Speaking Thursday, Notte raised concerns about the way the vote to reinstate the Raiders proceeded after so much was made about the procedural process by which it was retired.
She argued that motion Tuesday to bring back the Raiders was improper, explaining that the board technically needed to vote to rescind the prior motions to retire it and adopt the Ravens, which she said required a two-thirds majority to pass if not warned ahead of the meeting.
Last summer, current Board Chair Hurley Cavacas ordered an investigation into that process, alleging that the board under Notte had violated Robert’s Rules of Order in removing Raiders and adopting Ravens.
That investigation, conducted by an independent legal counsel, reported those actions had been carried out properly and were binding.
Notte said she hoped a similar investigation would be conducted following Tuesday’s vote for the sake of consistency.
Notte stated that an inability to get past the initial vote and properly adopt the new mascot made it difficult for the student body and community to achieve any momentum with accepting the change.
“Instead, it just stayed in this perpetual struggle,” she said.
Looking back, Notte said she thought the board could have done more community education around the importance of transitioning to a new mascot and how the Raider name and arrowhead impacted students of marginalized populations.
When asked if that educational campaign should have included more direct involvement from local Indigenous communities, Notte said while it may have been useful, she wondered why the onus was always on the minority population to prove its value.
Notte ultimately expressed concern that the return to Raiders is sending the board in the direction of “not representing all students and supporting diversity amongst our student population and diversity of needs of our district.”
Rutland High School senior Jenna Montgomery, who is a member of the change the mascot group, said she was “disappointed but not surprised” by the board’s reversal.
“We know that two of the commissioners ran solely on the platform of changing back the mascot and didn’t really have a whole lot of say about anything else. So it’s not exactly surprising that they prioritized that over other pressing matters because that’s really all they campaigned on,” she said.
Montgomery was referring to Commissioners Tricia O’Connor and Stephanie Stoodley who were elected as part of a pro-Raider slate last March.
Among students, she said there was a mix of relief that the debate was over and frustration that the mascot vote was reversed.
During the past year, Stoodley has maintained that a majority of RHS students supported Raiders, but Montgomery contended that is not accurate.
Montgomery acknowledged the Raiders name was popular among RHS athletes, however, she noted that population did not represent the whole school community.
“I think that that is the very loud group that Mrs. Stoodley is referring to, but I don’t think that the overwhelming majority of students oppose the name change,” she said.
“Quite frankly, I don’t care if they support it or don’t support it,” she said, adding that she agreed with Commissioner Dena Goldberg’s argument that “majority voting doesn’t necessarily address minority issues.”
Isabella LaFemina, senior class representative to the School Board, also acknowledged the student body remains divided on the issue — though she noted that many students are simply fed up with the board’s inconsistency.
“One minute we’re Ravens, one minute we’re Raiders. I think there’s a lot of kids who are like, ‘I didn’t care in the first place,’ and they just want this to be over with,” she said.
During Tuesday’s meeting, LaFemina lamented that the mascot issue was continuing to dominate board meetings.
“This board cannot get anything done under these circumstances,” she said. “I want to be able to be a part of a school climate that does not include a racist mascot, or a school board of adults clinging to said mascot.”
Stoodley objected to LaFemina’s comments, stating, “You’re the student rep, and I believe that you should represent the entire student body and not an individual or a segregated group.”
Later in the meeting, LaFemina spoke up again, challenging Stoodley’s assertion that the majority of RHS students were in favor of Raiders, calling it a “biased view.”
Speaking Wednesday, LaFemina defended her comments, stating, “I was elected as the student rep by my senior class. And I think that they would want me to speak up,” she said.
While LaFemina was not pleased with Tuesday’s result, she was also critical of commissioners’ behavior in general over the past year.
She expressed disappointment during the past month’s chaotic board meeting that ended prematurely following a series of heated exchanges between commissioners, including a particularly tense moment where Notte forcefully shouted down Cavacas.
“I’m disappointed in (Commissioner) Notte because I look up to her and what she’s fighting for. I just think there was a lot going on in front of us and behind the scenes that she was frustrated by,” she said.
However, LaFemina said she was more disappointed in Commissioner Brittany Cavacas, who called Notte a “b-tch.” The expletive was broadcast live on PEG-TV. Brittany Cavacas is the daughter of Hurley Cavacas.
LaFemina said most commissioners did apologize to her following the meeting.
She cited the behavior displayed by commissioners last month as the reason she and fellow student representative Hannah Solimano decided to participate virtually on Tuesday.
“We were afraid of what might happen in a public meeting with all those commissioners again,” she said.
Despite the acrimony — or, perhaps, in spite of it — LaFemina said her time on the board has been educational.
“I’ve learned some valuable lessons regarding how to talk to other people and how to be a member of society without attacking people with opposite views as me,” she said. “I think, throughout all of this, I’ve learned that school boards aren’t perfect but I would love to serve on one eventually. But with the right attitude, with the students’ intentions at heart.”
But while Tuesday’s vote settles matter for now, the days of schools using Native American mascots and imagery may be numbered.
Across the country, about 20 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 week, New Hampshire lawmakers introduced a bill prohibiting the use of Native American mascots in public schools, colleges and universities.
In an electronic message Wednesday, Rep. William Notte, D-Rutland, confirmed he would be introducing a bill similar to Maine’s.
The bill was introduced Friday and referred to the House Education Committee.
Rep. Notte is the husband of Commissioner Alison Notte.
The bill, which has 25 co-sponsors in addition to Rep. Notte, proposes to “prohibit a public school or public postsecondary 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.”
The bill further states, “Any public school not in compliance three years after passage of this act shall be ineligible to compete in Vermont Principals’ Association-sanctioned events.”
Rep. Notte was uncertain if the bill would get any traction this session, noting that lawmakers will be busy dealing with pandemic-related issues.
“But as a legislature we are committed to racial equity issues and this bill feels like lowest of low-hanging fruit,” he wrote.
He added that he didn’t believe the bill would run into any First Amendment issues, calling it “a pretty simple bill” from a legal standpoint.
He explained that while a school district has a right to name their sports team whatever they want, they don’t have a right “to force the connotations of that name on other communities.”
So while an outright ban has yet to materialize in Vermont, the Vermont Principals’ Association has taken a position on the matter.
In August 2020, the VPA released a statement declaring, “Any mascot, nickname, symbol or logo that has marginalizing, racist or exclusionary elements should be replaced to demonstrate what it means to be an inclusive, welcoming, and strong community.”
On Friday, VPA Executive Director Jay Nichols wrote in an email that the organization stands by that statement, adding that he was disappointed by the board’s decision.
“We realize this is a local decision, but to support a mascot image or name that is racist or discriminatory toward some of the students a school system is serving flies in the face of public schools creating inclusionary environments for all students,” he stated.
Representatives of local native communities have also been consistent in their opposition the use of Native-themed mascots and names.
Rich Holschuh, a representative of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, said he was “dismayed” by the return of the Raiders and arrowhead.
He said Vermont’s Indigenous communities, as well as the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, have made their position clear on the use of Native imagery and mascots, stating, “It’s inappropriate.”
He added that the local Indigenous communities have been open to having direct conversations about the issue.
“There has been no response,” he said. “The board and members of the community seem to continue to want to talk to each other in a circle and not with listen to anyone else’s viewpoints or perspectives on a topic which is not theirs to control. It’s not their culture.”
Holschuh claimed a lack of knowledge on Indigenous issues as the reason people oppose the change.
“If Rutland schools and all of the other schools in the state were teaching Indigenous education and if people actually knew how those histories went down in their places where they are — Rutland among them — we would not be at this point, because then they would understand what they were doing and recognize that it’s out of line,” he said.
Holschuh said legislation may be the best solution, however, he argued it shouldn’t be necessary to “legislate morality.”
Moreover, he posited that if people would simply consult with the Indigenous communities, legislation wouldn’t be necessary.
“Talk to human beings and ask them about their culture and how they see it. And that is not being done,” he said. “How can you think that you have any authenticity in discussing something about which you know very little?”