While a trending issue opposing the use of Native American wording and images wouldn’t affect Stoughton schools, it’s raised a broader question about what sort of political discussions the school board should get involved in.
The Stoughton Area school board spent more than an hour on the topic Sept. 3 deciding to continue the discussion next week at its 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 16 meeting. Board members encouraged the public to weigh in, prior to an expected board vote later that evening.
The resolution presented earlier in the month had been forwarded by SASD board member Kathleen Hoppe, and it claims that state and public schools’ use of Native American mascots, logos and nicknames “undermine the educational experiences of members of all communities” and teach children that it is acceptable to engage in culturally abusive behavior and perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions about Native Americans.”
Several school boards around the state, including Sun Prairie, Madison and Shorewood, have passed similar resolutions in recent weeks.
The Wisconsin Association of School Boards is set to evaluate the resolutions this month. If approved by its Policy and Resolutions Committee and then its delegate assembly meeting in January, the association can lobby legislators about the issue, according to an Aug. 19, National Public Radio report.
“Other districts … felt that if we banded together and got WASB (the Wisconsin Association of School Boards) behind it, we’d be helping all the kids in the state, not just our individual district,” Hoppe said.
Board president Frank Sullivan said that proposed resolution and some others suggested by members provided a good opportunity to “have a conversation among ourselves … about resolutions and how we’re going to do them.” He said his main concern was that the subject wasn’t local enough.
“Our primary focus needs to be on the world of our district and the things our district is trying to accomplish,” he said. “(There’s) all sorts of issues and initiatives at the state, local and national level, and … we may find ourselves focusing on them to the determinant of the issues right in front of us, that are our business.”
As a result, board members agreed to refer to board member Tim Bubon and the policy committee to develop a plan for how the board deals with resolutions.
Hoppe said the WASB encourages school boards to submit resolutions to its state convention to be considered as a potential issue to advocate for in the coming year.
“They want to know what their school districts are bringing up as issues,” she said.
District superintendent Tim Onsager said boards in the past 10 years were “all over the place” on such issues, with resolutions during that time including opposition to Act 10 and “various legislative issues that have come up.”
“Previous boards have had discussions, but there was never an official process or policy,” he said .
Adding to the ‘chorus’
Hoppe said she brought up the resolution after hearing in the past few weeks how other districts were passing similar measures, and “to add to the chorus of voices saying we would like our state not to have this issue in our schools.”
She said some school districts – mainly in the rural northern part of the state with few Native Americans, much less minorities – are “firmly entrenched and believe they’re going to keep doing what they want to do.”
“That’s led to other (school) boards throughout the state saying this negatively impacts students,” Hoppe said. “We’re teaching kids that just because you don’t have Native Americans in your schools, it’s OK to be thinking the symbol or name is more important than what we teach the students about intolerance and general sensitivity to other cultures.”
Hoppe said the goal of the districts that passed the resolution is to “put as much pressure on the (WASB) delegate assembly as possible” prior to the group’s annual convention this month, though due to timing, it’s unlikely any resolution from the district would be approved and submitted before that meeting.
Board member Steve Jackson referenced a state law enacted in 2010 by which residents can lodge a formal complaint with the state against a public school district for its use of a Native American logo or mascot. However, Hoppe said that doesn’t always help in very small districts.
“(Opponents) are a lone voice and don’t want to be shunned by the school and community,” she said. “There might just be one student who is uncomfortable, so to expect within a small district that somebody’s going to fight the good fight, it’s not comfortable a lot of times for people.”
Local vs. state control
Board members disagreed whether the issue should be handled locally or statewide.
Bubon said he“has to have faith in those districts and communities that this directly affects, that they are addressing this in the context of their communities that takes into account the well-being and safety of students.”
“I’m a little more pessimistic about everybody doing the right thing at the local level,” he said. “Cultural misappropriation is always bad, (and) some of these towns have zero Native American population, and they’re just sort of dug in, saying, it doesn’t hurt anybody. I don’t think those are the right people to be making those decisions.”
Both Steve Jackson and Yolibeth Fitzgibbon suggested broadening the resolution.
“Can we reach a solution where we’re not only against (discrimination against) Native Americans, but also for any racial group, if you can call it that,” Fitzgibbon asked. “(That) we’re not, as a district, accepting any kind of symbol that puts down a group in any way; something like that.
“That would be something that could happen in our backyard – this is not now affecting us, but it could.”
To debate or not debate
Board member Jill Patterson questioned whether the board should take the time to debate something that doesn’t affect Stoughton students, as no teams that district schools play against have questioned nicknames or logos.
“If I go talk to voters, they are going to wonder why we’re spending time talking about this topic if it’s not directly impacting the children in our district (who) we’re tasked with giving a great education,” she said. “I would strongly advocate playing against anyone who used these symbols as their mascot had they not had discussion like Wisconsin Dells did with (the Ho-Chunk) tribe. But I don’t think this is something we should be talking up as a board, because it’s not helping the quality of education students are getting in our district.”