The School Committee debates a change in team mascots for the two Pittsfield high schools.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Taconic High School will no longer be the Braves' House.
The School Committee on Wednesday voted to change 50-year-old team mascot and begin the process of determining a new, more culturally acceptable identity for the vocational school.
"I think this is going to be very divisive and very upsetting for this school," Chairwoman Katherine Yon said. "It is just a very difficult decision to come to and it feels like all of the decisions during this time are difficult."
The issue has come up during public comment over the past few months with callers asking the School Committee to change the name of the Taconic Braves and the Pittsfield High School Generals.
Callers believed there were racist implications to the Taconic mascot and saw the PHS mascot as symbol of violence.
Last month, the committee committed to taking up the discussion in a public forum.
Committee member William Cameron first made the motion to change the name of the Braves to something to be determined at a later date.
Cameron said he did not think any harm or racism was meant or when the school adopted the Braves in the 1960s. But he thought they should revisit the mascot with a more contemporary context and awareness of how Native Americans have been treated throughout history.
He added that he did not think eliminating the mascot was erasing history and or that any Native Americans gave consent to have an entire population represent Taconic High School.
"I don’t know if it is racist. I am not a Native American but it looks disrespectful to me," Cameron said. "I believe at the time ... that Native Americans were not ever involved in the selection of the mascot at Taconic high school and this was a decision that I dare say, was made by a white School Committee."
It was students attending the newly built high school named for the local Taconic tribe who suggested a mascot related to Native Americans and voted for "Braves" back in 1969. Then Principal Paul Johann told The Berkshire Eagle that the nickname went with "the history and geography of the area and certainly the spirit of the school." At the time, team uniforms used a tomahawk insignia; later, the oversized gym at the old school boasted in large letters, "Whose House? Braves House" and "Home of the Braves."
Taconic is one of only about 29 high schools in the state (down from 40) still using Native American logos, and one of just two in the Berkshires. Over the years, many schools and colleges have switched to new logos because of concerns that those logos and mascots are derogatory to Native Americans.
The committee had broached the idea of changing the mascot -- depicted as a male Native American in a head dress -- back in 2017 with the opening of the new Taconic but it apparently didn't go far.
Committee member Dennis Powell read the definition of a mascot: a person or thing that is supposed to bring good luck or that is used to symbolize a particular event or organization.
"How does wiping out a race of people bring someone good luck? What happened to the indigenous people we know through our history was horrible," Powell said. "... I don't think the indigenous people would be bringing people good luck based on how they were treated."
Committee member Daniel Elias was the sole vote in the negative and was hesitant to erase the mascot. He felt as long as it was presented in a respectful and honorable way he felt the Braves mascot could be seen as keeping the memory of a culture alive.
"We have not learned and we should never forget and as long as it is done in an honorable and respectful fashion," he said. "I think the name should stay."
Yon said the decision was difficult and saw the possible change as a stepping stone to further discussions on racism in the schools.
"These Taconic students have been taught to be brave, to be a real brave," she said. "That is what makes this one so hard. If we take it away from them we need them to understand the deeper reason why something like this can be interpreted as racist and demeaning toward a culture"
She did meditate on the word "brave" as an adjective and felt there may be an opportunity to repurpose the name but this was for a later discussion.
This was the next subject: who will name the new mascot?
Committee member Mark Brazeau suggested first sending out a survey to students to see if they wanted to change the mascot and what they would want to change it to.
The bulk of the committee did not want to solely leave the decision to the student body but felt their opinions needed to be considered. They preferred to inform their decision by some of their own research and Elias suggested they perhaps tap the local Native American community
Cameron then motioned to eliminate the Generals but added that this mascot, in his opinion, did not carry the same negative implications and in fact changing it could be considered disrespectful.
"I have to say leadership in war is not necessarily militarism ... many numbers of military figures who were generals were not fighting in unjust causes," he said. "Certainly in some of the those there would have been a disastrous outcome if no resistance had been put up."
The motioned failed unanimously but committee member Alison McGee suggested that they should at least review the mascot. She said they could consider changing it and possibly aligning it with the new Taconic mascot but if they decide to make no changes, they at least have solid information to back up their decision.
She made a motion to start this process and it passed unanimously with a 4-2 vote. Yon and Elias voted no.
The committee then agreed to table the issue until a future meeting.
The committee did hear from the public before diving into its own deliberation.
James Massery called in to the remote meeting and said he thought the School Committee named the mascot to honor Native Americans. He said it was always seen this way among students. In fact, he thought nixing the name would erase a bit of Native American awareness.
"Let's honor the School Committee's decision from 1968 and I hope that you would agree that we don’t need to make the name the Braves go away," Massery said.
The more modern stylized version of the Braves' mascot.
Resident Terry Carlo echoed some of Massery's points.
"We can't erase the past. We were very proud to be Braves when we were students at Taconic and no one ever saw anything wrong with it or thought it was a disparaging image," Carlo said. "We just don't want it erased."
The only voice in favor of changing the mascots was teacher Kelly Cusson, who thought they reinforce stereotypical thoughts and did not equate with the committee's stance against racism and violence.
"I am pleading with you to change the racist mascot," she said. "The leadership of this district publicly denounced racism and violence ... so I ask you to make a clean sweep and erase both mascots."
She thought it would be a good student project to come up with new mascots.
The committee also heard from student William Garrity, who called with a compromise suggesting they change the name to the Taconic Bravehearts. He felt this would solve some of the racist undertones many think the mascot carries while also not completely erasing the history and tradition of the Braves.
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Election Checkup: Pittsfield Sees Increased Interest in School Committee
By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — More candidates have had their signatures certified and there is now a full slate of interest in the School Committee.
Not long after the City Council averted a petition from Ward 2 Councilor Charles Kronick that imposed a 30-year age requirement to represent Pittsfield schools, two more people have taken out papers for the six-seat board: Stephanie Sabin and Dominick Carmen Sacco.
According to her social media, Sabin works as a patient advocate for bariatric surgery at Berkshire Medical Center.
Kronick had proposed charter modifications that include a minimum 30-year age requirement on School Committee candidates and a one-year "cooling off" period for elected officials and it did not fare well.
A majority of the councilors and some community members spoke against the proposal before Ward 1 Councilor Kenneth Warren called a charter objection.
Both students will speak at graduation ceremonies on Sunday, June 4, at 1 p.m. in the school gymnasium. The valedictory speech will be titled, "Facing the Road Ahead" and the salutatory address will be titled, "Life is a Highway."
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