On May 5, 2022, the Vermont House passed S.139, a bill to end discriminatory school mascots, on second reading. The vote was 96-47. You can read the full bill here. Rep. Mulvaney-Stanak introduced a similar bill (H.641) in the House earlier in the session. She led the floor strategy for supporters of the bill and helped to usher the bill to passage. Below are her remarks from May 5, 2022.
Thank you Madam Speaker.
I stand in support of S.139. This bill includes important policy provisions which will make Vermont schools safer and more inclusive places for all students.
School branding comes in many forms - most commonly in the form of athletic mascots, but we also see branding in school newsletters, events, classrooms and student groups - just to name a few. Images are powerful. They help us interpret the surrounding world. They also impact our subconscious, which informs our implicit bias. As this body learned in January 2021 from our training with the Vermont Human Rights Commission, implicit and explicit bias have the same outcome. One is not less harmful than the other. Both can impact whether you hire someone, offer them housing, or make other decisions that significantly impact another person’s life.
The intent language of S.139 states, “It is the intent of the General Assembly to ensure that all Vermont schools provide positive and inclusive learning environments for all students.” Discriminatory school branding exposes all students to repeated harmful imagery and undermines a safe learning environment. It sends the opposite message of what we want Vermont students to learn about our world. It also negatively impacts students’ implicit bias and potentially impacts how they engage with others, especially historically marginalized communities. We want students to accurately learn our history and understand and respect ethnicities and cultures different from their own.
Most of the discriminatory mascots remaining in Vermont schools depict Native American imagery. In 2005 the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of American Indian mascots. They noted 3 important points in their resolution. Madam Speaker, may I quote from the resolution?
1. Mascots “undermine the educational experiences of members of all communities-especially those who have had little or no contact with indigenous peoples. The symbols, images and mascots teach non-Indian children that it's acceptable to participate in culturally abusive behavior and perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions about American Indian culture.”
2. Mascots “establish an unwelcome and oftentimes hostile learning environment for American Indian students that affirm negative images/stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society.”
3. Mascots “undermine the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality and traditions."
The distortion of indigenous culture by mascots has a significant psychological impact on indigenous students. It impacts their mental health, self-esteem and sense of worth. Indigenous youth already face higher rates of high school drop out, higher rates of poverty, health inequities, and general discrimination in the education system. Rates of suicide among Indigenous youth, ages 15-18, are more than double that of white students.
These harmful images also impact non-indigenous students by increasing stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes and discrimination towards indigenous people. The impact of these images go well beyond the playing fields. Many students, families and community members are exposed to these images at school sporting events with other schools, in school branding and spin off branding within school communications and events. In short, the impact of a mascot is wider than you may think.
In January 2021, the Vermont Racial Equity Taskforce Report recommended the state create model policy on culturally offensive mascots and for the legislature to ban or review the use of such mascots.
Madame speaker, may I quote from the report?
“The decision to retire culturally offensive mascots should be an easy one, because it centers the needs and lived experiences of people who have been directly harmed by the depictions the mascots perpetuate. A common claim of opponents is that they are “honoring” the cultural group in question, but this is a hollow claim--after all, there are far more tangible and meaningful ways to “honor” a historically marginalized community that don’t involve donning cartoonish representations of their ethnic group, or images that bear shocking similarity to harmful or incendiary ideologies. The best way to learn how to honor a cultural group is to ask. More often than not, members of a marginalized group can name myriad ways to honor their history and culture including greater inclusion in the arts and creative sector, participation in decision-making that would be impactful to the community, revision of harmful policies that have historically shut that group out of opportunity, restorative justice and truth-and-reconciliation processes, and more.”
Finally, I must note this bill should go further by naming who will be involved when the AOE develops the model policy and what the enforcement provisions will be, so communities clearly know the consequence of not complying with the policy. We have more work to do.
However, today, S.139 moves us forward. The best message and best lesson we can offer our students is to remove harmful branding in our schools and prioritize safe learning environments. Student well-being is far and above more important than a mascot. Thank you.