Redskins: Retire or retain? Debate moves to Port Townsend auditorium Monday night

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — The School Board could decide whether to keep or change the high school’s Redskins team name and mascot Monday.

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the high school auditorium, 1500 Van Ness St.

It was relocated from the board’s usual meeting room in the Gael Stuart Building because of expected crowds.

The public comment period is expected to begin at 6:30 p.m. and will be followed by a possible decision by the board on whether to retire or retain the mascot.

“This is a tough one,” said School Board member Bill LeMaster, who would not disclose his preference or predict a decision.

“But the can has been kicked down the road long enough over the past 15 or 20 years, and this board is in solidarity to move the district forward.

“This is about the kids and is about education.”

At issue is whether the Redskins name, which has been in use at the school for 88 years, should be replaced with something that is not racially charged or retained as a symbol of respect for Native Americans with a long history at the school.

Controversy about the name has emerged periodically for several decades, but this is the closest it has come to being changed.

The meeting follows a one-year project by an eight-member committee, which submitted a report to the School Board on June 10.

While the committee designated its results as “findings” rather than “recommendations,” in the finished report, it took a stand for changing the name.

“The Redskins name needs to be retired with honor and dignity,” said Mary Ann Seward, a consultant who was paid $1,800 to facilitate the committee’s eight meetings.

“We need to accept that the culture has gone beyond us and that it is time to change.”

This round of discussion began with a June 5, 2012, letter from Port Townsend resident Andrew Sheldon to the School Board saying he was “offended, embarrassed and ashamed by our school mascot” and who asked that it be changed.

Sheldon reiterated this at a July 23 meeting last year that was attended by about 40 people, where the pros and cons of making a change were argued.

At that meeting, John Stroeder, a 1976 Port Townsend High School graduate who played for the Milwaukee Bucks before returning home, spoke out against changing the name.

“If you change the name, I’m done here,” said Stroeder, a former coach.

“I will take my jersey out of the cabinet,” where it is on display, he said.

“I’m very passionate about this, and I’m not passionate about a lot of things.”

Stroeder told the board that if the name is changed, “you will probably lose a lot of money and support from people around town.”

On Thursday, Stroeder said he would attend the meeting and would “possibly” make good on the threat to remove his memorabilia from the case if the name is changed.

“This is political,” he said.

“People who have played as Redskins have a lot of pride in the name, and there is no reason to change it now just because one guy [Sheldon] says so.”

Stroeder said he expects the Port Townsend and Chimacum districts to merge in the next few years and that the mascot should be changed at that time.

“He was a professional athlete and should be setting a better example for the kids,” Sheldon said of Stroeder.

“This is all about the kids and their education, which can’t happen while there is a racist symbol representing the team.”

Sheldon said that if the name is not changed, he will withdraw his daughters, who are 14 and 9, from the school and then sue the district for discrimination “because having that name makes it impossible for them to get a good education,”

Sheldon said the name puts his older daughter in an impossible situation.

He said she is unwilling to participate in cheers for the Redskins and as a result faces ridicule from her teammates, but she also feels threatened by opposing teams who may take offense by the name while playing away games.

If the team were called a term that was derogatory for black or Jewish people, then “people would recognize that it’s racist,” Sheldon said.

“This is the same thing.”

Stroeder said he “probably will” attend and speak at Monday’s meeting but that he expects the board will vote to change the name.

The board has not made a decision, LeMaster emphasized, saying members will maintain an open mind.

There is still tremendous ambivalence in the community: Many people support Sheldon’s effort to change the name and feel that “Redskins” is demeaning, while many alumni felt pride while playing under that name and don’t like “outsiders” telling them what to do.

A June 11 article in the Peninsula Daily News solicited 63 comments from both sides, and an online poll — which is informal and not statistically correct — the following day drew more than 1,000 votes, with 69.8 percent saying the name should stay.

In the informal poll, 24.3 percent favored changing the name, while 6 percent were undecided.

Port Townsend is not the only place reconsidering the Redskins name.

The superintendent of the Teton County School District in Driggs, Idaho, decided to drop the school’s Redskins name but has postponed action while a plan to change the signs and logos is implemented.

According to a June 14 Associated Press story, Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme made the decision to change the name because he wanted to show respect for Native Americans, teach students to look beyond skin color and respond to efforts nationwide to change names with tribal references.

But the decision has generated public outcry and criticism in and beyond the resort town of Driggs, prompting Woolstenhulme to schedule a public forum next month and consult with local tribal leaders, according to the story.

On the national level, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has said he will “never change” the football team’s name in spite of a letter from 10 members of Congress calling for a new name.

Port Townsend School Superintendent David Engle, who has been in his position one year, has stayed neutral in the discussion to change the name, ceding the decision to the School Board and the community,

At the June 10 meeting, the committee charged with studying the issue over the past year suggested it could take two or three years to change the name since it would require resurfacing the gymnasium and removing the Redskins logo throughout the school.

The cost of doing this has not been determined, according to the committee.

Student leaders have said the student body should not be responsible for the expense.

________

Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: June 22. 2013 5:52PM
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