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West Hartford Public Schools Files Motion to Dismiss Mascot Lawsuit

Signs at Conard (top) and Hall high schools in West Hartford with new mascot names greeted students on June 8, 2022. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The motion to dismiss was filed Friday, in accordance with a schedule set by Superior Court Judge James Graham at a hearing on July 7. [Originally published July 17. Updated July 19.]

By Ronni Newton

A hearing was held July 7 in a lawsuit seeking to block the process of changing the nicknames and mascots at Conard and Hall high schools, during which the parties were unable to reach a resolution, and Superior Court Judge James T. Graham set a briefing schedule – the first step of which took place Friday, July 15, with the filing of a motion to dismiss by the defendant.

In what Board Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said was a continuation of a process started in 2015, when the Board mandated that all Native American imagery be disassociated from the names Conard Chieftains and Hall Warriors, the Board of Education voted to change the nicknames at both schools on Feb. 1, 2022, and new mascot names – the Conard Red Wolves and the Hall Titans – were approved by the Board of Education on June 7, 2022.

A lawsuit was filed June 6 by West Hartford residents Scott Zweig an attorney, and a Hall High School graduate, along with resident Mary McGowan, also a Hall High School graduate and parent of children who have or will graduate from both of the town’s public high schools.

The lawsuit named the the West Hartford Board of Education, West Hartford Public Schools, and Superintendent Thomas Moore and Assistant Superintendent Andrew Morrow in their official capacities as defendants. As of June 30, Moore has left his job as superintendent of West Hartford Public Schools, and it has been requested that his name be withdrawn from the suit.

An motion for ex parte temporary injunction, filed by the plaintiffs on June 9, barring the district from changing either of the mascot names prior to the July 7 hearing, denied by Judge Susan Cobb on June 10.

Attorney James J. Healy of Cowdery & Murphy, LLC, the attorney for West Hartford Public Schools and its administrators, and the Board of Education, filed the motion to dismiss the lawsuit (see PDF below) on July 15, stating that the lawsuit never should have been filed, and that the plaintiffs do not have standing to sue.

“This is a lawsuit that should have never been filed,” West Hartford Corporation Counsel Dallas C. Dodge said in a statement late Friday, following the filing of the motion to dismiss. “Litigation is not an appropriate way to resolve what is fundamentally a political disagreement, and we look forward to fully briefing and arguing this issue. Out of respect for the judicial process, the Town will not have further comment until the Court hears argument and rules on our motion to dismiss.”

“These two plaintiffs seek to overturn a local school board’s eminently reasonable decision to retire the former nicknames of its high school sports teams,” the Memorandum in Support of the Motion to Dismiss states. “The Board’s decision appropriately recognized the evolving societal views about labels that had been historically associated with Native American imagery. It was also a prudent financial move. Recently-enacted state legislation will prohibit towns that use such names from receiving a share of revenues by the State of Connecticut from the Native American tribal casinos located in Connecticut. By moving on from the former team names, the Board ensured the town’s continued annual receipt of substantial funds, and furthered the clear objectives of this state policy.”

The Memorandum document states that the plaintiffs have the right to disagree with the decision, to share their opinions “in an appropriate forum,” and to support candidates in the next Board of Education election that share their views, but states that they do not have standing. “If standing were permitted for a grievance such as this one, there would be no end to the number of lawsuits that would follow from residents who disagree with the policy decisions of their local school boards. Such matters of governance and politics are left to the ballot box, not litigation in the courts,” the document states.

The Memorandum also states that the plaintiffs lack a legal stake because they do not have a a “specific, personal and legal interest” in the changing of the mascot names, but rather it is an issues shared by the general community.

“If the plaintiffs had standing to pursue this case, there would no longer be any functional limit to the local grievances that could be transformed into litigation endeavors,” states the Memorandum. “Residents who disagree with school board decisions about policy, staffing, budgeting, and any number of other actions would file lawsuits and force their towns to litigate these generalized grievances.”

The lawsuit does not attempt to “plead any claim for taxpayer standing,” the Memorandum states, and does not allege the possibility of any tax increase due to changing the monikers.

In the past four fiscal years, the Town of West Hartford has received an annual distribution of just $27,820 from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund. 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.”

Exhibit A, included as an attachment to the Memorandum in Support of the Motion to Dismiss, states that the Town of West Hartford, since 2012, has received $1,659,459 in grants from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan Fund.

Zweig, who is representing himself and McGowan, said he will be preparing a response.

“We are disappointed, but not surprised, that the Board is attempting to hide behind legal maneuvering in an effort to evade responsibility for their unlawful actions,” he told We-Ha.com Sunday evening. “While this latest attempt to avoid answering our allegations is unfortunate, it was also anticipated. The Board has shown a repeated unwillingness to listen to our concerns regarding their fatally flawed process, and this case is no different. Instead of addressing the merits of our claims and justifying their actions, they are instead trying to silence us by preventing us from having our day in court.”

Zweig said that he would have been willing to dismiss if the defendants “would agree to place a question regarding the team names at each school on the ballot at the next town wide election in November,” and both parties would agree to honor the results. He also said signatures are still being collected to bring the matter to referendum, with roughly 2,000 signatures collected to date by organizers who hope to have the 3,000 needed by the end of August or beginning of September.

The plaintiffs and defendants do not agree about the legality of holding a referendum on this issue.

Zweig said in an email that he also believes the defendants “are simply trying to run out the clock on our claim by delaying the proceedings.”

The plaintiffs have until Aug. 19, 2022 to file their response, to which the defendants must reply by Aug. 26, in accordance with Graham’s schedule. A hearing on the dismissal will be scheduled for Aug. 29, 2022.

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