School nickname change divides Vermont community

A move to change the Rebel nickname to be more inclusive has sparked death threats and likely contributed to the defeat of two school budgets.

Runners pass a scoreboard last week bearing the Rebel nickname at South Burlington High School in Burlington, Vermont. Lisa Rathke / AP

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — A move to change a high school team name to be more inclusive has sparked death threats, a stalking charge and likely contributed to the defeat of the school budget twice in a Vermont community that has long supported education.

The South Burlington School Board voted unanimously in February to drop the “Rebel” name at the high school this fall because of previous connections to the Confederacy. But some alumni and parents say the name change is unnecessary and if the school board wants to change it, it should be put to a public vote.

The school board declined during its Wednesday meeting to allow voters to make that decision.


“The rebel name to me means pride. It had nothing to do with the Confederacy,” Stacey Savage, an alumnae, whose kids have also gone through the school system, said after the meeting. She’s part of a group that opposes the name change and said it may seek legal action.

The move to change the name came about because of a gradual shift in the largely white school, whose population is now nearly 20 percent nonwhite, said South Burlington High School Interim Principal Patrick Phillips. He said the nickname has created discomfort for some students.

Superintendent David Young told the school board in February that it had become “crystal clear” to him that the nickname “is interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included in our schools. That is unacceptable to me and should be unacceptable to everyone.”

Some schools, colleges and professional teams have retired Native American nicknames or mascots deemed offensive. The College of Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts, will examine its Crusader mascot starting in the fall.

School team names typically have a long history and heritage and emanate from tradition, said Bruce Howard, of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“I think certainly schools sometimes have to be open to whether the climate’s changed,” he said.


South Burlington once had a mascot that resembled a so-called rebel Southern soldier from the Civil War. The mascot is long retired and now just the name exists, as well as strong feelings about it.

In February, Principal Patrick Burke, the high school’s principal currently on a leave of absence, said he didn’t think the Rebel name is racist or bad.

“But because we cannot escape the unfortunate historical Confederate context going forward, it’s no longer a symbol the SBHS of today can 100 percent rally around,” he added.

A member of a group opposed to the name change was charged in March with threatening a student over the student’s position about the change.

On Friday, an 18-year-old student pleaded not guilty in federal court to making death threats to students and staff at the high school, causing three lockdowns and class cancellation. The Burlington Free Press reported that one of the email threats discussed the Rebel name change.

The community has twice rejected school budgets in recent months and Phillips thinks the name change and associated costs — around $50,000 — has probably contributed to the defeats.

A third vote on a revised budget that removes the name change expense takes place in June.


At Wednesday’s meeting, resident Claudia Berger pressed the board to allow voters to decide.

“I urge you to again put this to a binding vote and I think we will get the healing that we need,” she said.

The board declined, saying officials made the decision based on the best interest of the student body.

Fellow resident Sandy Dooley said she was opposed to a public vote on an issue that she said is a student’s right.

“I think that every student, every child who participates in our education programs here in South Burlington has a right to be in an environment that in every respect supports his or her opportunity to take full advantage of what we’re offering here. And I think there’s ample evidence that the ‘Rebel’ identifier interferes with that,” she said.

A new nickname has not been decided.

Sandy Dooley, standing, speaks at a school board meeting about plans to change the South Burlington High School nickname.