West Hartford resident and attorney Scott Zweig urges the Board of Education to actively seek input from the public and not fast-track a decision about whether or not to change the Hall and Conard high school nicknames.
By Scott Zweig
On Feb. 1, the voting majority of the West Hartford Board of Education (the “Board”) will put their personal beliefs ahead of the interests of the more than 64,000 people they claim to serve.
Next week, the Board will vote on the continued use of “Warriors” and “Chieftains” as the team names for Hall and Conard high schools. Despite retiring all Native American logos and imagery in 2012 (Hall) and 2015 (Conard), the Board now wishes to take it one step further. Under the guise of new legislation and Board policy, they are fast tracking a change that the people of this town never asked for.
I understand and agree with the previous decision to remove insensitive Native American imagery and mascots from our schools. I am also in favor of enhancing our curriculum to include more emphasis on Native American history and culture. But to claim that the word “Warrior” is uniquely and inextricably linked to Native American culture or traditions and is therefore racist is a fallacy. Since the days of the early Roman Empire and ancient Greece, the term “Warrior” has been used to describe brave and courageous fighters. More recently, the term has been used to describe the men and women of our armed forces who are seriously injured in battle (Wounded Warriors), individuals who fight for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community (Rainbow Warriors), and people who battle cancer (Cancer Warrior), just to name a few. Are those cultural appropriations of Native American culture?
I understand that some people may not agree with my position and that is OK. We live in a society where everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. But I cannot accept a blatant abuse of power and lack of a comprehensive, transparent process.
In 2015, when this issue was last up for debate, the Board actively sought community input. They held a public forum, attended by more than 250 people, where 60 individuals stood up and made their voices heard. Students and staff cast their votes. After listening to the people, the Board voted unanimously to retire the logos and mascots, but retain the team names. It was described as a compromise and welcomed by the community. Since that day, our schools and administrators have made tremendous progress looking forward and disassociating our team names from the past. We are moving forward, creating new images and traditions. So why is the Board so focused on looking backwards?
Here we are again, seven years later and the issue has resurfaced. But did the Board hold a public forum this time? No. Did the Board actively seek input from the community? No. Instead, they quickly and quietly raised the issue for the first time in nearly seven years at a Board meeting on Dec. 7, 2021. However, instead of voting to establish a process or committee to research, review and consider the matter, they set it for a vote just 57 days later. Why the hurry? Well, the answer is obvious. The sooner they vote, the less time people will have to make their voices heard.
One might expect that with an emotional and controversial issue such as this, that the Board would devote some time to the subject during the TWO Board meetings leading up to the vote. They did not. Instead, the Board quietly waits for next Tuesday, when they can force their decision down our throats. Is that what we want from our elected officials? Of course not. Instead, we expect openness and transparency on issues like this that impact the community.
For example, look at neighboring Canton, one of the eight districts in Connecticut with a school that currently uses the Warrior name. They formed a committee in the spring of 2020, comprised of members of the community. They held meetings, actively sought public comment and even circulated a survey to students. In total, they deliberated for nearly six months before providing a series of recommendations to their Board of Education. The decision was unanimous: retire all Native American imagery and maintain the Warrior name. In some ways, Canton’s process reminds me of the process that we underwent in 2015. However, despite showing the ability to follow a public process in 2015, our current Board is simply taking matters into its own hands.
It should be noted that this issue is not unique to West Hartford. In all, there are eight high schools in Connecticut that currently use the Warrior name: Canton; Norwich Tech; Valley Regional (serving Chester, Deep River, and Essex); Wamogo Regional (serving Warren, Morris, and Goshen); Wilton; Windsor; Watertown; and Hall (West Hartford).
It is my understanding that only West Hartford is contemplating a change. In fact, after extensive review, several districts, including Canton, Wamogo, and Wilton are standing behind their team names, after removing all previous Native American imagery. Is there a reason why West Hartford is not capable of a similar process, regardless of the outcome?
The NBAs Golden State Warriors used a classically stereotypical and offensive Native American image from 1946 to 1969. Then, in 1969 they changed their logo to the Golden Gate Bridge. They’ve had some variations over the years, including a basketball with an outline of the state of California and a blue figure holding a lightning bolt. But they have clearly moved away from imagery that is considered offensive but kept their name, carving a new meaning for it. It was my hope that Hall could do the same.
If the Board is willing to establish a formal process or create a committee, comprised of members of the community, to review this issue, hold public forums, and actively engage in discussions, then any decision they make will have credibility. If after all that, the Board decides to retire the Warrior name, then so be it. But, in the absence of a comprehensive and transparent process, their decision will be unacceptable. The Board may claim that this vote is a “continuation” of a process that started in 2015. That simply is not true. In fact, the Board has not publicly uttered a word about this issue in nearly seven years.
Conveniently, and only after I and others requested it, did the Board create a page on the West Hartford Public Schools website containing documentation they refer to as “School Mascot Resources.” Clearly, publishing these materials less than a week before the vote and not making their existence widely known is an attempt by the Board to create the “appearance” that they are interested in community feedback and transparency, when the die have already been cast. Why was this information not made available in December, or earlier? Remember, Public Act 21-2, the legislation they are using as a vehicle for this change, was effective July 1, 2021 – 210 days ago. Yet they did not speak a word about it publicly until Dec. 7, 2021 – 159 days later. Why the delay? Is it possible they were unaware of the legislation? No. They waited five months so they could bury the issue over the December holidays, during a nationwide surge in COVID-19, to silence any possible opposition.
It is clear that the majority of the Board members have already made up their minds on this issue. The vote is merely a formality. They will cancel the names that have been associated with Hall and Conard high school since the 1950s, without so much as a meaningful dialogue with the community they claim to serve.
Regardless of your position on whether the team names should stay or go, we should all be able to agree on one thing: West Hartford deserves a comprehensive and transparent process that the Board failed to deliver. Shame on them.
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