U-CF mascot question dominates meeting as controversy expands
● By J. Chambless
By John Chambless
There was plenty of work on the agenda
at the March 19 meeting of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board,
but the issue of the Indian mascot of Unionville High School
dominated the evening.
A news crew from a local Fox News affiliate was set up at the back of the Unionville Elementary School gym, where the meeting was held. Several residents came to the meeting to address what they say is an attempt to eliminate the mascot.
School Board president Victor Dupuis opened the meeting by reading a statement. “Some of you are here about the topic of the school mascot,” he said. “A few vocal antagonists on this issue have flooded our community with false and derogatory statements regarding our district, our administration, our faculty and staff, and most imporantly our students, in misleading social media and news articles. There is no recommendation by the administration that could potentially remove the Indian mascot. There is no vote, no debate, no agenda item scheduled by this board. What is going on is a conversation among a group of high school students on a variety of topics around inclusion and tolerance. The topic of the Indian mascot was going to be a subject of their conversation. Instead, the fake news frenzy – that was particularly poorly role modeled by adults who want this to be an inflammatory debate – made it nearly impossible for these students to even engage in a conversation.
“The administration is taking this as a learning experience for the students, and is bringing in facilitators to help them role model to their community on how certain topics can be handled in a mature manner,” Dupuis said. “Could this student group potentially make a recommendation that asks the administration to change our school mascot? Yes they could. But that recommendation would likely not come forward from the students until next year. … I encourage everyone to focus their zeal for action elsewhere.”
Township resident Tom Pancoast objected to the board's policy that restricts public comment on items not on the agenda to the end of the meeting. “Fox News is here tonight about the Indian mascot, but you push us off until the end of the meeting,” he said. “I called two weeks ago to have mascot put on the agenda and got the runaround from [school district superintendent] John Sanville. Since the board has to be here all night, and we don't, why don't you allow us to speak so that Fox News can leave?”
Dupuis responded, “We're all entitled to our opinions. Our board policy states that public comments at the beginning of the meeting pertain to the agenda of the meeting. This is not on our agenda. It can be added at the end of the meeting. We're still going to listen and respond. The people don't run the meeting. The school board runs the meeting. And your time is up.”
During the meeting, the board voted to approve replacing and upgrading the Unionville High School fiber optic cable network at a cost of $50,750, as well as the first phase of upgrading the district's entire network at a cost of $431,000. The district saved $90,000 by voting to approve the expenditure this month. The cost will be a 2018-19 budget item.
The board also approved roofing work at Chadds Ford Elementary at a cost of $297,110, and granted a construction easement for land along Route 82 near the high school and middle school as part of a safety improvement project being pursued by East Marlborough Township. The township is pursuing grant money to help fund a crosswalk and other improvements on the road.
During a half-hour of public comment about the mascot issue at the end of the meeting, resident Scott Cousins referred to the earlier comments by Dupuis, saying, “I do object to the 'fake news' label. We've tried to take this seriously. I know there's been some rancor on both sides.”
Cousins referred to an email sent by Sanville to the community last week that addressed the issue.
“We have supported the groundwork done by the students interested in the mascot issue,” Sanville wrote. “Student leadership has plans to further the conversation by gathering feedback and conducting research. Ultimately their work will result in a report and presentation that outlines their findings. This will be a real-life accomplishment on a sensitive topic. ...We also want to hear the questions and concerns from community members.
“In UCF, we pride ourselves on understanding the value of expertise, so we have reached out for some third-party help. The Chester County Intermediate Unit, the University of Pennsylvania, and a UHS alumnus who is a current Stanford University graduate student (whose work focuses on “creating connections through respectful conversation about issues that matter”) have all agreed to assist,” Sanville's letter continued. “These individuals will be working with student leaders to facilitate discussions among students. … No matter where you stand on the UHS mascot, you should be able to express your views without being insulted or bullied -- in person or online.”
Cousins is asking for the formation of a Citizens Advisory Committee. “What we've heard in the community is that there's an Identity Council that is exploring the possibility of a name change. … Some of the names I've been called, well, you can imagine. 'Stay racist, Unionville.'” he said, quoting a Facebook comment posted about the controversy. “This isn't about racism. This is about a fine tradition of Lenni-Lenape Indians who have been in this area for 10,000 years.”
Ian Quain, the student body president at Unionville High School, told the board, “This conversation was started by the students in response to legitimate concerns, and it ultimately belongs to the students. If you allow this adult community to form, I fear that some of the student voices will be silenced. The adults that have come before you have brought their lawyers, their journalists and their cameras, and they intentionally or unintentionally want to silence those who are not of the same opinion as they are. I request that when the board is making a decision about the formation of this committee, that you consider the voices of the students and allow them to have a level playing field.”
Returning to the microphone, Pancoast said that while he respects Sanville, “the reason everybody is upset is that since Dr. Sanville took charge, the Indian head has disappered from the gym floors. It used to be on there. Now it's not part of the logo anymore. It's something you guys are trying to do without anybody knowing. That's where the problem came in. Now they want to get rid of the word 'Indian.'”
Dupuis responded, “Who's 'they' that would like to get rid of the word Indian? Nobody in the adminsitration or on the board is saying that.”
Sanville added that the decision to remove the Indian head caricature “goes back 10 years, before I even worked here.”
Pancoast continued, “Starting this year, the kids are not allowed to do the 'Chop' song at the games because it's offensive. Who's coming up with this stuff? Nobody knows. If there is not a problem with the Indian head, then I move to have it put back on the gym floors and back in the logo. Who started this Identity Council? It wasn't a student by himself that started it. That's the problem – it's all being done on the sly. … The teachers who sit in the student section of the bleachers during the basketball games so they don't chant anything offensive – I've seen that with my own eyes. The last few of my kids who graduated from Unionville said it's like a prison. The fun is being taken out of school. It's becoming torture for these kids.”
Having exceeded the mandated 15-minute time for public comment, Dupuis tried to sum up, saying, “I think we've pretty much covered this. There's going to be continuing dialogue. I'll close by posing a rhetorical question. If the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which is a student organization, wants to talk about specifics related to their faith in a student-led group, do we form a Citizens Advisory Committee to discuss whether they should discuss that? No, we don't. If the Math Club wants to talk about fuzzy math, do we form a Citizens Advisory Committee? No we don't.
“The Identity Council is simply a student group. It's not a legislative body, it's not a decision-making body. They can certainly make recommendations, but decisions lie with the school board, based on the recommendations of the administration. We don't have any actions intended in regard to this issue. I'm puzzled as to why it's perceived that there is some suspicious activity planned here. There is nothing. This board has no plans to do anything with this particular subject.”
Cousins stood up to demand that the school board formally deny his request for a Citizens Advisory Council, but Dupuis cut him off, saying, “You're out of order. We did address the request with you in writing today. This meeting is adjourned.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.