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Chester County Press

Unionville Indian mascot is center of controversy

04/17/2018 10:20AM ● By J. Chambless

An older UHS Baseball logo, with the Indian caricature.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The question of whether the Indian mascot for Unionville High School is being altered or eliminated has been sparking online battles and heated exchanges between community members and the school board since late last year.

The controversy started innocently enough, with a December 2017 meeting of the UHS Identity Council, a student-led group at the high school. Students formed the group to address whether the UHS Indian could be considered offensive. Members of the school board and administration, including district superintendent John Sanville, were invited to the meeting, and high school principal Jim Conley took minutes.

When word got out that the group had met, community members and alumni jumped into the debate. Some community members have gathered behind a group calling themselves the Save the Indian Coalition, which seeks to preserve the mascot as a school tradition. With more than 600 signatures of support, the Save the Indian Coalition is being spearheaded at this point by Scott Cousins, a township resident and attorney who has sent detailed and footnoted letters to the administration and board members. Cousins has also repeatedly asked to present a 15-minute speech to the school board about the UHS mascot issue, but has been rebuffed because residents are limited to five-minute comments on issues that are on the evening's agenda. The board has not formally taken up the issue of the Indian mascot. At the end of school board meetings, residents are allowed to speak on any topic, but the time limit is still five minutes.

The current logo of UHS features two feathers.

 In the minutes of the initial meeting of the UHS Identity Council, it is noted that “a number of committee members felt as though the district has already made some changes to remove the mascot (i.e., disallowing the 'chop' song at football games and removing Native American iconograhy from UHS).” It is difficult to find images of what the UHS Indian used to look like. One web search turned up a logo with a caricature similar to Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians, which has exaggerated facial features. The UHS mascot has been altered over the past several years without fanfare, and now the most commonly seen image is that of feathers hanging from the UHS initials. Cousins has seized the past alterations of the Indian as one of his grievances, and has asked who is making the decisions to pare down the mascot. Sanville has told Cousins that the changes to the mascot predate Sanville's arrival in the district.

For his part, Cousins is creating a meticulous trail of paperwork. His letter to Sanville and the board of March 30 was six pages long, with an additional 24 pages of attachments. He sent the communications to the Chester County Press.

Cousins is seeking recognition of the Save the Indian Coalition, and to secure a spot to address the board at a public meeting. The board has responded that they are not considering the issue of the mascot, and so Cousins' request for a formal presentation is not relevant.

On April 12, John Merrick, the solicitor for the school district, sent a letter to Cousins. The letter was forwarded by Cousins to the Chester County Press. In it, Merrick explains that since Cousins is an attorney, it is district policy to have the solicitor handle correspondence on behalf of the board. Merrick cited the request to address the board and quoted the response of board vice-president Victor Dupuis on March 19. “To be clear – the board is not forming any Citizen's Advisory Committee in regards to the topic of the school mascot,” Dupuis had said at the meeting.

Cousins then asked to present his points at the board's April 16 meeting. “Dr. Sanville has informed me that the mascot item will not be on the board's agenda for its public meeting on April 16,” Merrick wrote in his letter to Cousins. “Consequently, I reiterate Mr. Dupuis' prior response to you, for it represents the current posture of the board. Accordingly, you may consider the requests of your Memorandum as denied. Simply stated, at a given public meeting, board members cannot be compelled to make specific comments, answer questions, or take formal action at the choosing of a resident or taxpayer.”

Cousins, in his previous letters, has said that the board is violating the Sunshine Act. Merrick responded, “I disagree. The board has broad discretion to impose reasonable limitations upon public comment. Of course, there are certain meetings that, by law, require extensive time for comment from the public; the mascot matter is not in this category. In my opinion, the board's procedure has been in compliance with the Sunshine Act in this instance, which compliance will continue,” Merrick wrote.

Cousins quickly wrote back. He forwarded his April 13 response to Merrick. In it, he asks again for the board to “deliberate and take official action at the April 16 board meeting, in an open forum and based on a publicly-cast vote of a quorum of the board, denying my request for the appointment of a Citizen Advisory Committee.”

Cousins also references the spring newsletter of the Traditions at Longwood community, in which school board president Jeff Hellrung addresses the mascot issue. Cousins forwarded the newsletter to the Chester Colunty Press. “Unfortunately, a highly vocal group of adults in our community have engaged our students in a sometimes intimidating and disrespectful manner in their zeal to 'Save the Indian,'” Hellrung wrote. “Some on the side of eliminating the Indian mascot have matched this vitriol in attacking the 'Save the Indian' group.

“First, the Indian is not threatened,” Hellrung wrote, adding that if the student group does have suggestions regarding the mascot, they will bring those thoughts to the administration, who may pass the issue to the board for debate before any changes would be considered. “So, we are trying to calm our community and encourage the adults who have so rudely inserted themselves into this student issue to back off and allow our students to pursue their project and to learn without interference,” Hellrung concluded. “Unfortunately, it's been our students who have modeled civil discourse in this instance and not our adults.”

Cousins, in his April 13 letter to Merrick, wrote, “While I expect the name-calling from social-justice warriors, as a resident and taxpayer of UCFSD I don't expect it from this board. Calling members of the Coalition rude, intimidating, disrespectful, and accusing us of having other bad motives including being part of a 'Fake-news frenzy' isn't civil discourse – it's a Heckler's Veto designed to shut down debate. … I haven't engaged in name-calling with respect to the board, the board members, the district, the administration, the faculty or the students. I expect the board and its members to treat me with the same courtesy, even if we disagree about the mascot.”

At the school board's April 16 meeting at Hillendale Elementary School, Cousins and his wife, Candace Heining, waited until the public comment period at the end of the two-hour meeting to address the board.

Heining handed out packets of written materials to each board member and Cousins reviewed the written comments between himself and Merrick, the school district solicitor. He showed the board images of how the Indian mascot has been changed over time.

“Did the board authorize these changes?” he asked. “My concern is that the administration has been taking steps to change the Indian mascot, not the board. The board's responsibility is to make those changes. Changes have happened over several years. I think this all goes away if, tonight, the board says there is ample opportunity for the community to participate, and that you give substantial weight to all the stakeholders.”

Hellrung responded, “Clearly it would not be suitable to have a full back-and-forth on the points you raised tonight in this setting. So I'll just repeat Dr. Sanville's offer that he'd be glad to speak with you one-on-one. I would be very willing to sit down with you as well.”

Cousins said, “If you say you will reconsider the request in a year, or whenever this issue comes back up, that will go a long way. I know the board's not prepared to do that now, but we want our voices heard.”

Hellrung said, “This is not a matter before the board. It's a matter that a group of students is considering. We are interested in allowing our students to conduct an inquiry, with nothing but support from us. No one on the board, no one in the administration, has said a word to me about removing or changing the Indian. It's not an issue. It would be nonsensical to form a commission about something we're not thinking about doing. We're certainly not going to move away from our Indian symbol, other than through board action.”

Resident Tom Pancoast, who has been involved in the Save the Indian Coalition since its beginning, addressed the board.

“I'm listening to you, Jeff, say that the board isn't going to make a decision because there's nothing happening,” he said. “They just showed you the Indian has disappeared off the school ID in the last couple of years, it's not on any of the logos, it's not on any of the jerseys, it's not on the gym floor. What other evidence do you need?

“What we need is a public debate,” Pancoast added. “What is said over a cup of coffee, without anyone else around, is one thing, but what is happening here is another. … Let's let people say what they think and let's hear what the board thinks. You people keep hiding. Nobody is speaking up.”

Pancoast quoted from Hellrung's article in the Traditions at Longwood newsletter, taking exception with his characterization of the Save the Indian group. “We're all adults here,” he said. “We don't want people to think we're a bunch of crazed adults, trying to save the Indian. Not yet, anyway. You said the Indian is not threatened. It's because it's not there. We need some answers. Who's making the decision to keep taking the Indian away?”

Hellrung answered, “I do stand by everything I said in the article. Only excerpts were read here tonight. Anyone who read the whle article would realize that both sides were covered.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].