Sunday, October 28, 2018
The Vermont Supreme Court has rejected a citizen effort to restore the name of a high school's sports teams
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 name “Rebels” for its sports teams after it was used during a game that South Burlington played against Burlington, where students formerly attended school. Although the name did not originate from a connection to the Civil War, over the years, individual students at times waved the Confederate flag at highschool football games. The practice was banned by school officials, but some individuals continued to use the name “Rebels” to express racist attitudes and beliefs at the school.
In 2015, there was a request that the District cease using the name “Rebels” because of the associated racist bigotry and intolerance. The request was included as an action item on the school-board agenda and the school board engaged in a discussion regarding the topic. Some board members expressed their view that the moniker was not meant to be racist, but to symbolize those who are critical thinkers and do not necessarily follow the mainstream. After consideration, the board reached a consensus to keep the name, but asked the superintendent to suggest ways to rebrand the name to express a positive connotation and not be misunderstood as an endorsement of the Confederacy or slavery. The superintendent presented five recommendations in a January 2017 memorandum, but the Board took no action at that time.
At the school board’s meeting on February 1, 2017, the superintendent reported that he was recommending that the “Rebel identifier” be retired. He explained that the recommendation was based on, among other things, shared stories from students, staff, and families, and research about the impact of racial bias on children. He stated that biases existed in the community and that the “Rebels” name felt exclusive to members of the student community. Many residents attended this meeting and it was live-streamed by the local newspaper. Following the superintendent’s presentation, the board voted to discontinue using the “Rebels” name.
A petition was filed by those who rebelled at the action, who sought to put the issue to a vote.
The court here
We conclude that the District did not have a duty imposed by law to include the petitioned article in a district-wide vote. See Bargman v. Brewer, 142 Vt. 367, 369-70, 454 A.2d 1253, 1255 (1983) (explaining that mandamus is to enforce “a simple and definite duty, imposed by law, and arising under conditions admitted or proved to exist” (quotation omitted)). Because the article involved nonbinding, advisory questions outside of the electorate’s authority to grant or refuse at town meeting, the District was not required to present the article to voters under 17 V.S.A. §§ 2642-2643. Further, we conclude 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. Therefore, we reverse the trial court’s order and remand for entry of judgment in favor of the District.
What's in a name
Here, the item—the name of the District’s sports teams—that residents sought to include in a district-wide vote is not a matter within voters’ authority to decide at a district-wide meeting. The powers of the electorate are delineated by statute and include discrete items, including voting for the annual salaries for school-board members and authorizing the amount of money to be expended. 16 V.S.A. § 562. The electorate is neither given authority to specifically designate the name of school teams nor general authority over that area. In contrast, the school board has broader, more general powers, including determining “the educational policies of the school district” and taking “any action that is required for the sound administration of the school district.” Id. § 563(1), (2).
Nor is there a right to instruct here
We need not delve deeply into the contours of the right to instruct in Article 20 to conclude that it does not entitle residents to mandamus relief in this case. To the extent that an enforceable right exists under Article 20, it is an individual right and not a collective one.
Burlington Free Press reported on the controversy and court decision.
More in depth coverage of the controversy from the Free Press
The three-month blow up over the decision to change the schools' team name, which culminated in murder threats and a federal indictment, is not the first time the Rebel name has become a flashpoint for racial tension at the school.
In fact, the high school's Rebel name — coupled with the Confederate flag — has faced opposition since at least 1963.
In that year, Bill Schneider's mother in South Burlington wrote to urge the superintendent to choose another name because of its association with the Confederacy. South Burlington High School's first class chose the mascot in 1961, but Bill Schneider, 70, of Middlebury recalled his mother thought the name would compromise the school. He said he didn't understand his mother's concern until taking college classes.
"It was simply that they wanted a mascot with emotional appeal," Schneider, a 1964 graduate, said explaining that students who chose the Rebel name had little understanding of race or politics.