TAMPA - Mascot changes will proceed at six elementary and middle schools in Hillsborough County to end Native American stereotypes.
And members of the School Board are more concerned about the process that the district used than the issue itself.
That’s the upshot of Tuesday’s School Board meeting, which began with angry words from Native American residents - kept off-camera, as the board continues to exclude public comments from its broadcast - and ended with board members blaming the administration and, specifically, its communications process for subjecting them to political fallout.
“I never got notice of any of these meetings happening,” said board member Cindy Stuart, after hearing a description of the two years of work by district staff and a Native American parents’ group.
But, she said, even though the board was not involved, “when you put things out in the community, they come at the seven of us.”
Board members have struggled in recent weeks with complaints from constituents who want to hold onto traditional school mascots such as “Braves,” “Warriors” and “Indians.”
That’s why on June 4, with cameras turned off because public comments had just ended, Stuart made a motion to pause mascot changes at Ruskin, Summerfield, Thonotosassa, Forest Hills and Brooker Elementary, and Adams Middle School. Chamberlain and East Bay High, home of the Chiefs and the Indians, are keeping their mascots, but modifying game day rituals to make them more historically accurate and less offensive.
The board, which supported Stuart unanimously, was responding in part to a petition drive led by a child at Brandon’s Brooker Elementary, whose mascot was the Brave.
But an equally vocal group turned out Tuesday, when the board took the unusual step of holding its meeting at Temple Terrace City Hall. So many people arrived that there was not enough room for everyone in the auditorium. Some in the protest group wore t-shirts that said, “I am Native American. I am not a mascot.”
They described violence experienced by their ancestors and the indignity of being the only ethnic group for which caricature would be socially acceptable.
“Until you do this to other cultures, until you have the Brooker Negroes, or the Brooker Mexicans, or the Brooker crackers, you should not have a Native American mascot in your school system," Sheridan Murphy told the board.
"Imagine if you had someone on the school board who was in blackface. What would happen? Yet we do red face all the time on Thanksgiving, on sporting days, on sporting events, and nobody thinks anything about it.”
Stuart Flores asked, “For anyone to put my nation, our ethnicity, our race, as a mascot? We’re in the 21st century. What are you doing? It’s sad, We’re not against you. We want you to wake up.”
Mothers and teenage children spoke. Taylor Pfister, 17, said no one knows how many Native American children are in the schools because often times, they hide their identity.
“It’s 2019,” she said. “People should not have to hide their culture from the school district. We have faces. We have names. We deserve the right to be respected.”
The pro-mascot Ramos family, who had led the petition drive at Brooker, also took part with Jessica Ramos, their mother, saying she respects people of all ethnic groups. The Tampa Bay Times’ video of those comments can be seen on Gradebook’s Facebook page.
District staff did turn the cameras on when it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance, proclamations, and a goodbye celebration for the principal of Durant High School, who is retiring.
Hours later, when the board conducted the discussion it had requested on June 4, the topic turned largely to how district staff should have treated them.
Stuart and chairwoman Tamara Shamburger told their audience that their problem was not with the changing of mascots. Rather, they said, they were concerned about the process, and whether communities around the schools had enough input.
Shamburger - who had supported Stuart’s motion in the unanimous vote on June 4 - said she was against ethnic mascots. “Public schools are places of inclusion, not exclusion,” she said.
Member Karen Perez cited studies that show exposure to Native American mascots results in stereotyping that can affect employment decisions. “Hillsborough County is much more than this,” she said.
Member Lynn Gray said she had a lot of questions about when a change in mascot was necessary. Was there evidence, she wondered, that students were being bullied or otherwise harmed as a result?
Mostly, they described a breakdown in communications that kept them in the dark during the roll-out of the changes.
“There are some controversial decisions that, when they are discussed, need to be more in the sunshine,” member Melissa Snively told Eakins’ staff. “We have our constituents to answer to. You’ve got one boss. We have 300,000 bosses.”
No vote was taken, as none was necessary. All six schools have already chosen new mascots, involving children and parents in the decisions.
Eakins said he supports the changes, as do all six principals. The changes still will happen, he said.
But district leaders will speak to the principals about timing. Some might take more steps to discuss the issue with the students, possibly getting the Native American parents’ group to assist.