The Vermont Senate Education Committee on Thursday advanced a bill that would restrict the types of mascots and names to be used for Vermont school sports teams, even if the community voted for the mascot.
The aim of S.139, as originally introduced, is “to prohibit a public school from having or adopting a name, symbol, or image that depicts or refers to a racial or ethnic group, individual, custom, or tradition and that is used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, or team name of the school.”
Earlier on Thursday, the committee heard from a handful of education policy leaders, including Jay Nichols, the executive director for the Vermont Principals’ Association. Nichols has concerns about what happens when the local communities and the state disagree.
“One question that we have is what happens if the school district refuses to comply, as the law is silent on that,” he said.
Committee Chair Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, said he expects that school communities will comply without conflict.
“We’re going to trust administration and school board members and others to do the right thing,” he said. “And I think this, like everything else, we’ll see how it goes. You know, there’s no reason not to trust folks to do the right thing.”
Jeffrey Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, also posed a question.
“What happens?” he said. “Because if the administration moves to implement the policy, it’s got budgetary considerations, it’s got political considerations, and it’s got considerations in terms of the relationship that the administration enjoys with the boards.”
Legislative counsel Elizabeth James answered his question.
“This would be a law that they are required to follow,” she said. “… There is an assumption under law that they [the school board] are following that policy. What happens, how the AOE [Agency of Education] interacts with the school district or tension in the relationships within the community over the fact that they are required to follow the model policy, I can’t speak to that.”
Sue Ceglowski, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, suggested that her organization might provide the guidelines that school communities will be required to follow.
“We’re happy to provide input to the Agency of Education on the development of a model non-discrimination school branding policy,” she said. “… This model would be put into the required section because of the language in the bill that requires districts to have it.”
Ceglowski suggested that the bill should clearly imply that these schools must buy new uniforms, redo the gym floors, and more.
Bray said that according to his interpretation, “that would mean changing the mascot wherever it might exist.”
James reiterated that point, saying, “You would have to get rid of anything with the school brand on it that’s not compliant with the law.”
The bill explains the enforcement mechanism to be used against Vermont communities: “Any public school not in compliance three years after passage of this act shall be ineligible to compete in Vermont Principals’ Association-sanctioned events.”
Emily Simmons, the general counsel for the AOE, said that someone could make a complaint to the state about another town’s mascot, and that would still require that town’s board to spend its time on an assessment of their mascot.
“Assume someone in that community or someone outside that community feels that the branding is in violation of the policy, they [may] bring a complaint which the board would be required by law to act upon,” Simmons said.
Earlier this year, the Rutland City School Board voted to return its mascot to “the Raiders” after it was briefly changed to the “Ravens” during a school mascot controversy. Were S.139 to become law, this would allow the state to penalize the Rutland School Board for its decision to return to its original mascot.
The committed approved an amended version of the bill 5-1 on Thursday, with Sen. Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland, as the only no vote.
If passed into law, The Agency of Education will adopt a model policy as required by the act by Aug. 1, 2022.