Court Reverses Decision in Rebel Mascot Case

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Thursday November 01, 2018

The divisive battle over the name of the South Burlington School District’s sports teams may finally be over.

In a decision written by Associate Justice Karen R. Carroll on Oct. 26, the Vermont Supreme Court concluded that neither the applicable state statutes nor the Vermont Constitution required the school district to put a petition concerning the name to a district-wide vote.

“The recourse for voters is not through petition, but election,” the decision read. “If the public is dissatisfied with the performance of school directors, ‘[t]hey may, in due course, replace their school directors at the end of their respective terms.’”

The road to last week’s Supreme Court decision was long and sometimes rocky.

Students in South Burlington attended Burlington High School until the 1960s when South Burlington opened its own high school. The new high school adopted the “Rebels” name for its athletic teams after it was used during a game that South Burlington played against Burlington. At that time, the mascot name was not based on a connection to the Confederate soldiers who fought in the Civil War, but some individuals later used the name to express racial animosity at the school.

On Feb. 1, 2017, after nearly 18 months of debate in the community and schools, the South Burlington School Board voted unanimously to stop using the name “Rebels” as the school’s moniker as of the beginning of the new school year in September 2017. The board’s action was taken following Superintendent of Schools David Young’s recommendation to discontinue the name.

Young’s statement to the board at that time emphasized that it had become “crystal clear” to him that the “Rebel” identifier was “interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included” in South Burlington’s schools. He said that his recommendation was based on shared stories from students, staff, and families, and on research about the effect of racial bias on children.

In response to the board’s action, a group of citizens presented the board with a petition to place the following article on the city’s ballot:
“Should the name of all South Burlington School District sports teams be the ‘South Burlington Rebels’ and should the South Burlington City Council and South Burlington School Board be required to make official, retain, and maintain the name for all South Burlington School District sports teams?”

Especially since additional language in the petition stated that a “Yes” vote would require use of the “Rebels” name, the school board refused to present the measure to South Burlington voters.

Contending that the board was legally required to place the measure before the voters, four plaintiffs sued the school district: Robert A. Skiff, Jr., Benjamin E. Nye, Stacey E. Savage, and Marcy E. Brigham. They described their lawsuit as a “mandamus action” in which they sought to compel the school board to call a vote on the petition.

Although the plaintiffs prevailed at the Chittenden Superior Court level, the Vermont Supreme Court, on appeal, rejected the plaintiffs’ statutory and constitutional arguments in its Oct. 26 decision.

Specifically, the Supreme Court concluded that the district had no legal duty under the Vermont statutes to include the petitioned article because the article “involved nonbinding, advisory questions outside of the electorate’s authority to grant or refuse at a town meeting.” In addition, the Court concluded that the “right to instruct” in Article 20 of the Vermont Constitution “is an individual right and does not require the District to present a petitioned advisory article to voters.”
Is the name battle over? School board chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald was optimistic and conciliatory when asked to comment.

“We’re glad the matter is resolved, and we hope that all community members will continue to work with us to support student learning in South Burlington,” Fitzgerald said. “The board is always open to community feedback and welcomes engagement at our regular meetings.”
The Regional Education Television Network (RETN) films every regular school board meeting and live streams the meetings at https://www.facebook.com/retnvt. The next regular board meeting is scheduled for Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. in the Orchard School Cafeteria.

 

SOURCE: William Wargo, Contributor