BELLEFONTE — The Bellefonte Area School Board spent just as much time discussing the controversy surrounding the school’s Red Raider mascot as it did about the upcoming school year during a July 14 board meeting.
The mascot controversy is visible all over Bellefonte as many residents display signs in support of the Red Raider, while petitions on both sides continue to circulate on the internet. As of July 20, more that 4,000 people have signed the online petition asking for the district to change the mascot, a native American symbol in headdress, while a counter-petition has more than 4,600 signatures in support of keeping the name and logo as it stands.
This decision came after board President Jon Guizar posted a letter on the school Web page on July 8 addressing the matter, stating, “Although the school sports nickname is not on the agenda for any Board of Education meetings in the near future, we are committed to addressing important issues of equity and inclusivity to ensure we provide a safe and welcoming educational environment for the students and families we serve.”
Board member Rodney Musser called the letter “a surprise to the board,” and asked for a discussion about the matter.
Guizar explained that the letter was not meant to be a statement from the board, but was a way to clarify confusion about why the issue was not being brought forth on the board’s meeting agenda.
“It was a statement from the board president about the board agenda, which myself and the superintendent are directly responsible for. I didn’t sign that as the board of directors,” Guizar said. “I signed it as Jon Guizar. If there was a misunderstanding about that, I apologize to the community.”
The board was divided on the whether to discuss the topic and member Jeff Steiner spent time trying to persuade the board to focus on other pressing items, such as the elementary school project and superintend search, already on the board’s plate as it looks to return students to classroom this fall after the shutdown.
“Usually, I am the board cheerleader and glue guy. Tonight, I am going to be the tough love guy,” said Steiner.
He added, “Last meeting some of the board members noted that there is never a good time to start this discussion, and this is true in isolation. But this does not justify doing it at the worst possible time.
“There are certainly those who come at this from a good place, who mean well, some of whom have communicated about this respectfully and thoughtfully, but this myopic rush to push through a mostly symbolic gesture completely disregards how doing so would impact so many in a deeply personal way, as well as how they are being portrayed to make it happen,” continued Steiner. “As a resident of this community for over a quarter of a century, the way this is being framed runs counter to what I know about Bellefonte.”
In the end Steiner, Guizer and Kimberly Weaver were outvoted as the other members voted to put the discussion topic on the agenda.
Musser noted how school districts around the country, and even Washington’s professional football team, are changing their names.
“I am not saying we shouldn’t do it, or that we shouldn’t be opened minded, but I am also saying that we also don’t rush into it,” said Weaver. “Because you can’t just say that this happens — just because we have gotten emails, and not nice emails either. Yes, I feel very bullied, but by one side more than other.”
“These are discussions that are happening currently because these have been brought up nationally,” said Musser.
During the discussion, the board agreed to let the district look further into the matter as part of the broader diversity, inclusion and equity plan that the administration is currently putting together.
Interim Superintendent Tammie Burnaford said the plan will address the mascot as part of the broader topic of diversity and inclusion in the school through the formation of a committee that will complete a data and needs assessment-driven action plan over the next school year. The action plan and recommendations will be made to the board between February and April, according to the timeline for the plan.
The board agreed to be open and transparent as the issue continues further. Musser said he would like to know what the costs would be to change the mascot, as well as see a presentation about the history and origin of the mascot by a credited historian.
“I think the community needs to see that sooner rather than later,” said Musse