Reports of racism and bullying collide with reverse decision on GMUHS “Chieftains” team name at February school board meeting

Green Mountain Union High School. Photo provided.

CAVENDISH, Vt. – “I am an eighth-grade kid student of Green Mountain Union High School in Chester, Vt., and I have been dealing with racial issues since last year and the beginning of this school year.” So began the letter written and read by Honoré Hazen at the Green Mountain Union School District School Board meeting on Feb. 15, 2023. Hazen continued reading, citing multiple examples of harassment, such as racist slurs spoken in the halls or lunchroom and written on the bathroom mirror and school bus seats.

Hazan concluded her letter by writing, “I try to be a good student and keep my grades up, as I am an athlete for the school. This has affected me personally in a negative way for far too long and I need this to stop.” Hazan sent the letter to Gov. Phil Scott’s office, and the governor responded.

Gov. Scott wrote, “First, let me say how saddened I was to hear about your experiences at GMUHS. I also want to thank you for your bravery in bringing these issues to the forefront.” Scott stated he had asked Secretary of Education, Dan French, to investigate this matter on Hazan’s behalf.

The governor also invited Hazan to learn about additional requirements being proposed for Vermont schools, as part of a larger anti-hate curriculum and racial equity policy within his administration’s agenda, and expressed his commitment to provide all students a safe and respectful learning environment.

At the school board meeting, Superintendent of Schools Lauren Fierman echoed Gov. Scott’s convictions. Fierman noted that with situations like this, “We need to behave as if the school is on fire. And the administration and staff need to address the issue expeditiously and in a way that makes sure the family, and most importantly the student, feel safe while there is due process.” Fierman stated that it was important rules be followed, but a safe environment for all students is top priority, and there would be no tolerance for this type of bullying.

Stating that she is not able to speak in an open forum about specific actions or reports as that violates the students right to privacy, Fierman advised, “The family can state whatever they want in open session, but the staff of the school cannot.”

In attendance at the meeting were a fairly large number of residents there to either defend or reject reinstating the arguably insensitive school sports team name, The Chieftains. Area resident Paul Nelson presented the board with a petition directing the school board to rescind its decision to retire the Chieftains name. The petition contained 531 signatures, 40 from current GMUHS students. Part of the issue with the decision was that it was not properly warned before the board retired the name, and citizens felt they should have a voice and a vote on the matter.

Board member Joe Fromberger reported that he had received a letter from the Rutland chapter of the NAACP, and the Gedakina Group, which has ties to the Abenaki tribe, notifying the board that they will be filing a complaint concerning the use of the Chieftain name and mascot. Fromberger said the letter cited issues that were out of date, using inaccurate information, and that he had notified them that the mascot had been retired.

Fierman noted that the name itself is not the problem as much as the mascot, and the two are historically tied together, which the board had agreed was a direct violation of anti-discrimination policy.

Board member Deb Brown suggested that the board should work with the alumni and the students on how to rebrand the name, so they can make this a positive, learning, educational experience. Brown moved to rescind the decision of Jan. 19, 2023, to retire the Chieftain name, and use the opportunity for growth. After more discussion, the motion was carried with a vote of 6-4.

GMUHS is not alone in a state where reports of racism in schools and at local sporting events seem to be increasing. Dialogue and action need to begin to take place immediately as the school board, parents, teachers, and students navigate this sensitive and important topic.

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