WHITEFIELD, Maine — The Regional School Unit 12 board of directors on Thursday night agreed to restore the “Redskins” mascot name at Wiscasset High School until the end of the school year and set a timeline to find a new mascot.
The intended compromise came after two hours of emotional debate and emerged from two split votes by the board.
Thursday’s temporary reprieve for the Redskins name represented a middle ground of sorts between Maine Indians and their sympathizers, who want the term dropped for good, and local supporters of the mascot, who want the issue kicked back to a Wiscasset-based committee for reconsideration.
The board met Thursday night at Whitefield Elementary School for the first time since a nonbinding referendum vote in Wiscasset, in which four of every five voters indicated support for retaining “Redskins” as Wiscasset High School’s mascot.
The RSU 12 board in January voted to “immediately and permanently” discontinue use of the Redskins name in response to a request by the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, members of which told board members last fall that the mascot name offends Maine’s tribes.
The January school board vote abruptly changed the mission of the Wiscasset-based committee, which had been assembled by the board just a few months earlier to study the mascot issue and eventually return with a recommendation on whether to keep the name or replace it.
Members of that committee reiterated to the board Thursday that they felt their work was cut short. Some argued that by dropping the nickname in January without letting the panel research it and make a recommendation, the board added fuel to growing discontent in Wiscasset about the eight-town regional school district.
Committee member and Wiscasset High School parent Chris Teel said criticism that the committee — through boisterous disagreements in its three meetings before the January vote — cultivated a hostile atmosphere at the high school and failed to make adequate progress was premature.
“Given the time, we would have normalized, and we might have come to understand the hurt [felt by Indians],” Teel told the board Thursday. “We may have come to that conclusion, but this board didn’t give us a chance.”
History, community voices
Evidence of public discontent, said Teel, has come in many forms. Since the board’s January vote, many high school students staged a walk-out and circulated a petition against the decision; the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen issued a letter urging the district board to rethink the choice; and a nonbinding referendum at the polls in early March indicated that four of every five of the 10 percent of Wiscasset’s registered voters who took part in the referendum support keeping the Redskins name.
“I’m not going to bore you with the numbers of votes we had to take,” said Chet Grover, a fellow committee member and Wiscasset High parent. “The community has spoken. … I encourage you to listen to that.”
RSU 12 board member Gene Stover dismissed Indian claims of the term’s “racist” or “genocidal” origins as “modern myths.”
Stover, one of three Wiscasset representatives on the eight-town district board, cited historic reports of Indian chiefs using the term “Redskins.”
“I would like this board to take a professional stance that this is not prejudiced, sexist or derogatory,” Stover told his fellow board members. “The Indians used this word to describe themselves. If somebody else wants to use it a different way, that’s their problem. That’s not Wiscasset’s problem.”
But fellow board member Kim Andersson, also of Wiscasset, disagreed.
“We’ve talked a lot about the history [of the term], but I don’t know that even matters,” she said. “It’s the Golden Rule. Our neighbors have told us that this is offensive to them. … It doesn’t matter if we think so or not.”
Others on the board referred to a letter submitted to the board with signatures from more than half the Wiscasset High School faculty, urging the removal of the Redskins name on grounds that the heated debate creates an increasingly hostile environment there for students.
“We were elected to do a job, and to help give the children an education in a stress-free, nonconfrontational environment,” said board member Ralph Hilton, of Alna.
State Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, said the high school and college that he attended both used the mascot name “Indians” when he attended, and have since stopped using the term in deference to tribal concerns.
Speaking to the audience in attendance at Thursday’s meeting, Fossel urged people to “find a way” to change the Wiscasset mascot name gracefully while they still can.
“It’s time to bury the ‘Indian,’” Fossel said. “It’s time to find a new symbol. I know you don’t want to hear that, but [change] is coming. You elected me to tell you the truth, and that’s the truth.”
Three more months
Paige Teel, Chris’ daughter and a student representative to the mascot committee, urged the board to at least let this year’s seniors graduate with the Redskins mascot in place.
“It’s kind of inevitable that our name is going to be changed, but out of respect, I ask you to keep it until the end of the year,” she said. “Right now, we’re nobody, and that’s all the students are asking for: Give us these last few months and let us graduate with the name we’ve had for three years.”
As a result of two split votes, the board did that.
Using a weighted vote system, in which each board member’s vote is assigned a value commensurate with the population of the community he or she represents, the board approved an amended motion that reinstates the Redskins mascot until the end of the 2010-11 school year.
The original motion, by Blake Brown of Palermo, called for the name to be restored, and for the committee to be allowed to finish its study of the mascot issue and return to the board with a recommendation.
An amendment proposed by Richard DeVries of Westport Island, however, placed a deadline on how long the school could continue using the name. DeVries offered an amendment in which the committee must return to the RSU 12 board’s May meeting with a recommendation of a new name, and that the new name must be successfully installed on Wiscasset High property by Aug. 1.
Brown’s original motion was intended to reopen the door to the possibility that the committee might recommend keeping the Redskins name permanently, but DeVries’ amendment effectively blocked that possibility.
As a result, the board voted 10-9 to approve DeVries’ amendment, then 10-8 on the modified original motion, with eight of the nine dissenting voters on the amendment continuing on to vote against the overall motion.
Vice chairman Lester Scheaffer, who voted against the amendment, abstained from voting on the overall motion.
Using the weighted voting system, the motion needed 6,660 “votes” to pass, and the 10 approving board members added up to a total of 7,045.
Those 10 were: Chris Johnson of Somerville, Barbara Skehan of Chelsea, Hilton, Frank Hample of Somerville, DeVries, Hilary Holm of Whitefield, Gerard Nault of Windsor, chairman Thom Birmingham of Windsor, Andersson and Kami Peaslee of Wiscasset.
The eight who voted against both the amendment and the overall motion were: Sherrill and Allen Hallett of Chelsea, Gary Emond of Windsor, Stover, Brown, Bob Temple of Palermo, William Stafford of Alna and Michelle Chartier of Westport Island.
Andersson previously offered another amendment, which was unanimously approved, clarifying that the Redskins name would be allowed to remain on the high school’s historical items, such as old trophies, plaques and photos.