Southern York County schools to retire Native American mascot

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
Susquehannock logo on a banner at Susquehannock High School Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

The Southern York County School District will no longer use its Native American mascot following a board decision Thursday night. 

The board voted 7-2 Thursday to retire the Susquehannock High School mascot, ending a controversial debate that started nearly a year ago. The district will keep the terms "Susquehannock" and "Warriors" as part of its branding. 

Students will design the new logo. Superintendent Sandra Lemmon said the board will receive its first update on the transition next month.

Officials started discussing the mascot last year, following calls for the district to change it. It came amid nationwide criticism of Native American mascots, which led the Washington, D.C. football team, formerly known as the Redskins, to rebrand.

The debate spurred competing change.org petitions supporting and opposing a change to Southern York's mascot. A petition to remove the high school's mascot gathered 850 signatures, while a petition to keep the mascot gathered more than 3,800 signatures. 

The board ultimately prompted the district's diversity committee to research the issue before making a decision. Afterward, board members were largely quiet on the issue until March, when district officials returned with research that prompted the discussions to resume. 

More:Southern York County to decide on Susquehannock High School mascot in April

More:Susquehannock High's mascot: Nearly 4,000 signed petition, but no one spoke up at meeting

The committee found no evidence that members of the Susquehannock tribe lived within the district's boundaries, although there was some evidence that members visited the area. They also found that the district's curriculum does not include much mention of the Susquehannock people, other than a section in the fourth grade. 

Later in March, several leaders from Native American communities spoke to the board at a special meeting. Ian Record, with the National Congress of American Indians, said he felt that Susquehannock High School's mascot perpetuates racist stereotypes of Native Americans, depicting them as "war-like."

Out of more than 3,300 responses in an online survey issued to district community members earlier this month, about 80% of the participants did not want the mascot to change. Assistant Superintendent Robert Bryson said he wasn't surprised by this result but said marginalized groups normally don't have the loudest voice in these types of debates. 

"Their voice is small, but sometimes they need us to speak," Bryson said. "And to me, this is one of those times."

Although the majority of survey responses favored keeping the mascot, Bryson said a majority of the responses also showed people felt Native American perspectives should hold weight in the decision. 

Student Representative Atticus Silbaugh pointed out that few current students responded to the survey. Out of the roughly 3,300 responses, about 500 came from current students, compared to more than 1,600 alumni, which made up the biggest portion.

Silbaugh said if current students were passionate about the mascot, more would have responded. The students Silbaugh knows are largely neutral about changing the mascot, he said. 

Three parents testified during Thursday's meeting. All of them were either against removing the mascot or requested the board postpone the decision. Two parents said the board should not make a decision on the mascot during the COVID-19 pandemic, because fewer people were willing to speak up on the issue. Another parent objected to the mascot being described as racist, arguing it was "too strong a word."

"The accusation is offensive to the innocent," the parent said. 

Two board members, Ronald Groncki and Bruce Bauman, voted against the motion to retire the mascot. Groncki said everyone he knows from the district, including some with Native American heritage, don't find the mascot degrading. Bauman said he was concerned that the large majority of the district community were against removing the mascot and said doing so could lower financial contributions from alumni. Board member Judi Fisher said she found that argument "hard to believe."

"We're talking about a drawing," she said. 

Bauman also argued that retiring the mascot would eventually lead to the board retiring the name "Susquehannock." This could prevent people from learning more about the Susquehannock tribe, he said. 

Silbaugh challenged this argument, asking Bauman what he knew about the Susquehannock tribe, even with it being the current name of the high school. Bauman did not answer what he knew but said removing the name would prevent more people from being curious and looking into it. 

A majority of board members who voted in favor of changing the mascot shared the same sentiment that the Native American imagery does not give the term "Warriors" meaning. Deborah Kalina, who made the motion to retire the image, said the district can keep the warrior name without including imagery that some find offensive. 

"It's not about what's popular, it's about what's right," Kalina said. "And I think we all know what the right answer is."