Hillsborough School Board continues to wrestle with mascot issue

The members took political heat even though they were not consulted in changes at six schools.
Hillsborough County School Board member Steve Cona still has concerns about the way school mascots were changed in the Forest Hills area. [TIMES FILES]
Hillsborough County School Board member Steve Cona still has concerns about the way school mascots were changed in the Forest Hills area. [TIMES FILES]
Published July 16

TAMPA - Still smarting from the fallout after six schools changed out their Native American themed mascots, the Hillsborough County School Board took steps Tuesday to revise its policies on mascots and school names.

If the proposed new policies survive a public hearing and board vote, mascot changes will come before the elected board for approval.

In addition, there will be clearer language on both mascots and school names, prohibiting any choice that is "racially derogatory" or "discriminatory."

No vote was taken Tuesday, as it was a workshop setting and not a board meeting.

And although the board members said they were acting in the interest of transparency, they chose to conduct Tuesday’s conversation in a conference room without cameras. The Tampa Bay Times created a video of the workshop and posted it on the Gradebook blog’s Facebook page.

Five elementary schools and one middle schools are in varying stages of removing mascots with Native American themes, as part of an agreement with a committee of Native American parents who have worked with the district under a federal grant program.

In an earlier board meeting, also with cameras off, the board voted unanimously to pause the six mascot changes because they felt that neither they, nor the public at large had enough opportunity for input.

Board members said they fielded angry calls, emails and questions from constituents they ran into at the supermarket.

Ultimately, Superintendent Jeff Eakins agreed that the six school principals - who all supported the changes - should work with their communities, where appropriate, to slow and explain the process.

On Tuesday, member Melissa Snively said, “if we’re going to be held accountable publicly for making this decision, then let’s be a part of making this decision." The new policy was her idea.

The schools in the group are Forest Hills, Summerfield, Ruskin, Thonotosassa and Brooker Elementary; and Adams Middle School.

Board member Steve Cona on Tuesday continued to push back against the process behind the changes.

"If it comes from the, school if it comes from the parents, if it comes from the teachers, then I'm okay with that approach," he said. "But not necessarily a random group coming to the district and saying, 'I feel that X and Y is offensive and we should change it.

"A lot of history is built up at some of these schools," Cona said. "When you look at just the Forest Hills area, when you're a Brave and a Warrior and a Chief, that builds that community."

Chamberlain High, home of the Chiefs, is one of two high schools that were held harmless in the round of changes. The other was East Bay High, where the mascot is the Indian.

Snively’s proposed policy also calls for procedures that would “ensure equity, inclusion and transparency” in decisions about mascots.

Chairwoman Tamara Shamburger, in revisions to an existing policy on naming schools and school facilities, went a lot farther.

Shamburger wants schools to "respect cultural differences and values" in all naming decisions, and for the School Board to prohibit the use of "any racially derogatory or discriminatory school name, athletic team names, mascots or nicknames."

A rule will remain in place that does not allow schools to be named for elected officials who were in office in the last five years.

But, with that caveat, they can still be named for former School Board members.