by KIM HILSENBECK
A racially motivated vandalism incident at Hays High School last spring prompted community members to give impassioned statements at Monday night’s Hays CISD Board of Trustees regular meeting.
Last spring, two male freshman students, one white and one Hispanic, wrote racial slurs and urinated on a black teacher’s classroom door at Hays High School. They also damaged other school property in a vandalism spree.
Public discourse at the time included suggestions, again, to stop using the Rebel mascot and Dixie fight song because it is offensive to some in the community and affects the image projected by the high school to other districts.
Some went so far as to say the imagery was a root cause of the racial incident.
Though not officially on the agenda, the hot topic on Monday was what the board plans to do, if anything, about the Hays High School Rebel mascot and Dixie fight song. The Confederate flag was removed from the school’s imagery more than ten years ago.
The board at that time also opted to modify the school’s dress code to disallow clothing that is deemed offensive rather than change the mascot or song, which many in the community claim is part of the spirit and pride of the school.
However, many feel the language in the written code is vague and the interpretation of what is deemed offensive is left largely up to the campus administrator to decide and enforce. Some parents say the rules are inconsistently applied.
A news release last week clarified that the upcoming board meeting would not be the forum to discuss and, more importantly, to decide anything regarding the mascot and song.
The statement said, “Any consideration of changing the Hays High School mascot or school song would start with a collaborative community and school-based formal process. This process would provide multiple opportunities for input and involvement for everyone interested in the matter, regardless of their position.”
However, at Monday’s meeting, board vice-president Meredith Keller said there was some confusion among community members about what would be discussed at the meeting.
The issue was not on the agenda but Keller said Superintendent Jeremy Lyon told her it would be. She wanted to know when the board would discuss it.
“The Hays CISD community has been wondering for quite some time when the issue of these traditions would be discussed by this board and it was reported in the [Hays] Free Press that we would discuss it back in June. And while I didn’t originally request to speak on this issue, many have been waiting to hear from us. My request is to relieve some of the weight of this issue in some other form or fashion,” Keller said.
Lyon later said, “I can’t speculate on any board members’ confusion.”
During the public forum portion of the meeting, Will McManus was one of several community members who spoke regarding the issue of diversity and racism within the district.
“I try to teach my children, don’t create an issue where none exists,” McManus said to the board. “I hope that as we move forward with conversations about the Rebels and Dixie that we make sure there is an issue we’re actually working on. I think the bigger issue is, do we actually have a problem in this district with racism?”
McManus said he would personally have no problem with changing the mascot and fight song, but it’s a much broader community issue. However, he said he does not believe it would even be in the top 10 list of the most important issues to be addressed by the board.
In fact, McManus went on to say his main concern is class size ratio, an issue that was addressed later in the meeting.
Mary Davis, who spoke after McManus, wants to know where the district stands on training administrators and others on recognizing sensitive issues. Her daughters and granddaughter graduated from Hays High.
She referenced how McManus talked about Dixie and the Rebels and said it’s not important.
“But because of my hue, you can understand why it might be important to me,” Davis said.
Davis is a black woman. McManus is a white man.
“It’s really racially offensive. It’s not very neutral. And it also creates a barrier to diversity,” Davis said of the Rebel mascot and Dixie fight song.
“What can we do?” she asked the board.
She said she could see where McManus didn’t grow up in an environment like her grandfather, mother and father did and he wouldn’t understand.
“When we hear that [fight] song, it brings up all of that. And I have suppressed it for a long time,” she said.
Davis said she has heard parents from other schools comment negatively on the Rebel mascot and Dixie fight song.
“They hear this song and people walk through our football games saying, ‘what are they singing?’,” Davis said.
“I’m laying it in your lap,” she said to the board, “because it is an issue.”
Gina Kirkland, a mother of three Hays CISD students who said she knows most of the Rebel football players, gave the most emotionally charged speech of the evening.
“The children are the most impacted by what the board decides,” Kirkland said. “I was reading the board code of ethics. You promised not to base any decisions on personal opinion.”
But she said that considering any changes to the Rebel mascot because of what she called ‘the stupid actions of a few students’ would punish all the wonderful children in the high school.
Kirkland said there is no room for personal politics on this or any school board.
“I can’t help but think that you have decided wanting to be a Rebel or play Dixie as a fight song makes these children not open to the diversity that you are so looking for. Wanting these things does not make these incredible children close-minded, hateful or racist. Those of you on this board or in this room who are assuming that should be ashamed,” she said.
Kirkland said the board eventually has a decision to make.
“You could cower to the small group who is more worried about our image than our children, or the small group who is determined to make this a personal political payback,” Kirkland said. “Or you can stand up for the children in the community you promised to serve.”
She urged the board to respect the students’ hard earned traditions.
The board later heard recommendations from attorney Melanie Charleston on providing training and programs to promote a greater acceptance of diversity and reduce the potential for student vandalism/theft/graffiti on campus during activities outside of normal school hours.
Spokesperson Tim Savoy said Charleston’s recommendations were a result of a district-ordered investigation of how to proactively reduce the likelihood of any future incidents at any campus and to improve cultural awareness and understanding.
He said the disciplinary and criminal investigations into the incident from last spring are separate.
The recommendations from Charleston were:
1. Develop a Critical Incident Plan at each campus and train all staff members.
2. Improve procedures for supervision and security of students after hours and during weekend activities.
3. Implement enhanced safety and security protocols in the spring for secondary schools to address end of school issues.
4. Attend Department of Justice training for administrators on recognizing sensitive employee issues.
5. Implement the Anti-Defamation League’s Peer Training Model for students at Lehman and Hays High Schools.
6. Implement a staff-training program based on improving cultural competency and awareness.
7. Initiate process and programs for increasing the diversity of the district’s workforce.
8. Ensure all district personnel are aware of critical incident definition and reporting.
Whether or not the board will move forward with public discussion of the Rebel mascot and Dixie fight song at Hays High is unknown.
In a phone call after the meeting, Lyon said he heard the board clearly say they want to move forward on implementing the recommendations from Attorney Melanie Charleston, including increasing cultural competency in the district.
As far as changing the mascot or song, Lyon said, “If there was a quorum of board members that wanted to go down that road, or any road, then that’s what we would do.”
The motion to accept and implement the recommendations passed 7-0.