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Lawsuit Seeks to Block West Hartford Board of Education from Changing High School Mascot Names

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The West Hartford Board of Education is scheduled to vote Tuesday night to approve the new mascots and nicknames chosen by Conard and Hall high schools.

By Ronni Newton

The agenda for the Tuesday, June 7, 2022 West Hartford Board of Education meeting includes under “Unfinished Business” a recommendation that the Board “receive and approve the new mascot names for both Conard High School and Hall High School,” names and mascots which have been chosen by each school community through a process that has been taking place over the past several months – but a lawsuit filed by West Hartford resident Scott Zweig is seeking to block the process.

The West Hartford Board of Education voted on Feb. 1, 2022 to change the nicknames of Conard and Hall, and the students voted on the new names and mascots last month, with the plan to have the announcement made Tuesday night and the transition take place prior to the next school year.

According to Board of Education Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, the Feb. 1 action was the culmination of a process that began in 2015 when then-Board members voted unanimously to drop all Native American imagery but allow the Chieftain and Warrior names to remain. Factors leading to revisiting the 2015 vote, Thomas-Farquharson said previously, include the Board of Education’s recently-adopted educational equity policy. Thomas-Farquharson said the school nicknames are offensive to the Native American population, and have been condemned by Native American tribes and organizations.

In addition, Public Act 21-2, passed by the state legislature in special session during June 2021, includes the following provision: “For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023, and each fiscal year thereafter, no municipality shall be paid a grant from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund established pursuant to section 3-55i, if a school under the jurisdiction of the board of education for such municipality, or an intramural or interscholastic athletic team associated with such school, uses any name, symbol or image that depicts, refers to or is associated with a state or federally recognized Native American tribe or a Native American individual, custom or tradition, as a mascot, nickname, logo or team name,” unless specifically approved by a recognized tribal nation. West Hartford most recently received grants totaling $27,820.

Zweig, an attorney who has been outspoken in his opposition to the Board of Education’s decision to retire the Hall Warrior and Conard Chieftain nicknames, sent a letter to all Board members dated May 16, requesting that the Feb. 1 vote regarding the nicknames be rescinded immediately and all actions to change names ceased “because the actions of the Board lacked due process and constitute unlawful violations of Board policies.”

While West Hartford Corporation Counsel Dallas Dodge responded to Zweig’s letter with a statement that the Board’s action “was not only procedurally appropriate, it is entirely consistent with local and state education policies on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Zweig asserts in the lawsuit that “the response failed to address the crux of Zweig’s letter: how the Board’s actions regarding the Renaming Motions complied with the referenced Board policies and due process.”

On Monday, Zweig and co-plaintiff Mary McGowan, also a West Hartford resident, filed a lawsuit in Hartford Superior Court – naming the West Hartford Board of Education, West Hartford Public Schools, and Superintendent Thomas Moore and Assistant Superintendent Andrew Morrow in their official capacities – and requesting that the Board of Education refrain from voting Tuesday night. A hearing has been set for July 7, 2022, and Zweig has requested no action be taken until at least that date.

“Given the Court’s Order and the pending application for a temporary injunction and temporary order of mandamus, the Board of Education should not take any action before the July 7, 2022 hearing, including at tomorrow’s meeting, regarding the high school team names,” Zweig said in an email Monday night.

Thomas-Farquharson refrained from comment on the suit, and referred all questions to the Corporation Counsel Dallas Dodge.

Dodge provided We-Ha.com with the following statement regarding Zweig’s filing: “The West Hartford Board of Education has received a so-called ‘Notice of Violation’ from Attorney Scott Zweig as well as a lawsuit filed by him demanding that the Board of Education rescind its decision to discontinue the use of the Chieftain and Warrior names at our two public high schools. Attorney Zweig’s alleged procedural grievances are without merit – the decision was properly adopted by the Board, and it is consistent with local, state and federal policies concerning equity and diversity. Despite Attorney Zweig’s claims to the contrary, there is no court order barring the school district from moving forward with the name changes.”

Dodge told We-Ha.com on Tuesday that prior to considering the agenda item regarding the mascots, the Board of Education will go into executive session, to discuss whether or not they should proceed with the vote. He said the discussion in executive session will only pertain to whether or not the vote will take place – not how Board members plan to vote on the mascots.

“There is no court order issued,” Dodge said, which would prevent the Board from voting. He said he anticipates the hearing set for July 7 will be preliminary only, and not evidentiary.

Zweig’s suit, which cites the violations noted in his May 16 letter, asserts that the Board of Education that the decision violates Policy 1700, which pertains to “School Nicknames and Images” and permits the continued use of Chieftain and Warrior. That policy has neither been amended nor repealed, Zweig states.

Zweig also asserts that the Board is in violation of its “Educational Equity” Policy 1800, because it has not applied the policy equitably to address continued use of the name of King Philip – a Native American Chief – for one of the town’s middle schools.

The Board has failed to have two public readings of the proposal to change the nicknames, which are substantive amendments to the existing Policy 1700, and in violation of Policy 8310,”Formulations, Adoption, Amendment of Policies and Bylaws,” Zweig states.

And Zweig also asserts that the Board has violated Policy 8120, “Limits of Authority,” because they directed the principals at the high schools to appoint committees to develop new names although the Board is prohibited from “command[ing] the service of any school district employee.”

The suit filed Monday states: “If the Court allows the Renaming Motions to remain in effect, Petitioners will be irreparably harmed, because the team names of the High Schools will be changed, resulting in certain but undisclosed costs to taxpayers, based on a process that violated Board policies and due process of law. Time is of the essence.”

The complaint also alleges that “[b]y labeling these team names systemically racist and offensive, the Board has severely harmed the athletic and academic reputation of the high schools, its students and alumni, including petitioners.”

The cost to taxpayers to remove existing team names from apparel, signage, and other items has not been disclosed, the suit states, and “likely exceed the estimated $27,820 that the town of West Hartford is scheduled to receive from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund next fiscal year, provided it complies with Public Act 21-2. As a result, residents of West Hartford are being forced to incur the unknown financial burden of the Renaming Motions which resulted from the unlawful actions of the Board.” The suit cites an article written by this author and published on We-Ha.com in 2015, when at the time “Superintendent Moore was quoted as saying that replacing the schools’ imagery would cost more than $50,000 and replacing the team names and the imagery would cost $97,000, excluding signage outside of the buildings.”

Dodge said Tuesday that he does not have an estimate of the cost to change the names, but the cost of defending the lawsuit will likely be much greater.

Copies of the legal actions filed Monday can be found below as PDFs.

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4 Comments

  • If the town has any surprlus Covid funds to help people relocate to Florida – I would be the first to sign up

  • Absent objections from actual Native Americans, the name changes amount to an expensive feel-good move to satisfy board members egos.

    The BOE has had decades to address the real problem rooted in the disrespectful behavior demonstrated in pep rallies. The images and names are neutral references to the indigenous populations in the area.

    BOE just has this wrong.

  • I am confused. Why didn’t Corporation Counsel Dodge respond directly to Attorney Zweig’s claims regarding the two policies? Isn’t that his job as lawyer for the Town of West Hartford? By Counsel Dodge not stating why Zweig is wrong seems to give credence that Zweig is correct in his claims that there has been procedural errors.

    Why did the Board of Education not follow correct procedure? These seem to be questions that the citizens should have answered.

    Attorney Zweigs Petition seems very well researched. Is Item 53 correct? Will the Town not receive the funding regardless? Is this something that the BOE / Counsel Dodge SHOULD actually be looking in to?

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