In the Spring of 1997, a single individual complained to the Superintendent of the Buncombe County Schools about the use of a "squaw" mascot at Clyde A. Erwin High School. The complainant alleged that this term was offensive to Native Americans. The complainant wanted the Superintendent to act unilaterally to discontinue use of the mascot at the school.
The Superintendent initially took the matter under advisement. An investigation showed that the students and community did not interpret the term squaw as offensive or improper. Students at Clyde A. Erwin High School used the term squaw as a statement of pride. However, knowing that the complainant was sincere, and having received additional individual protests, the Superintendent began discussions with the Board of Education about how to resolve the complaint in a manner that respected everyone's rights.
The Board directed that students at Erwin High School be educated about the issue. A. curriculum was developed that focused on cultural diversity and sensitivity awareness. Speakers and knowledgeable guests were invited to the school to work directly with students. These speakers specifically informed students about a Native American interpretation of the term squaw and how it has been used as a negative epithet with even vulgar connotations.
Student sessions were conducted under the guidance of professional mediators. A delegation of Erwin students visited the Cherokee reservation. Native Americans also visited Clyde A. Erwin High School. A video presentation was even created to inform citizens and students alike about the issues involved in the controversy.
As meetings between complainants and school personnel continued, the local and national news media entered into the debate. The local newspaper published an editorial stating that the students should be allowed to decide whether or not to keep the mascot. Letters to the editor, guest columnists, and feature stories kept both sides of the issue before the public. Other individuals joined the debate. It appeared that the majority of community members willing to express an opinion did not see anything discriminatory about the use of the term squaw.
As time passed, it appeared that the debate was doing little to change individual opinions. Most people were solidly for the mascot or against it. The Board decided to put closure on the issue in May 1998, when the student body was given the opportunity to vote on eliminating or retaining the mascot. A clear majority of students voted to retain the mascot. Those opposing the mascot declared that the issue would not end with this vote. They now criticized the decision to let students exercise self-determination over their mascot. The Board stated its intention to abide by the student vote. They felt that the students had been given accurate and detailed information about the issue and that their vote should be the final resolution of the matter.
Those who opposed the use of the term squaw not only continued to voice their opinion, but also expanded the issue to include the use of a warrior mascot. The term itself was not an issue, but they felt the depiction of a Native American as the warrior was unacceptable. Administrators and members of the Board of Education were threatened with lawsuits.
Eventually, these threats crystallized into allegations from attorneys about violation of civil rights, as protected by the U.S. Constitution, and about specifically creating ". . . a racially hostile. environment" at Erwin High School. Furthermore, the Board was notified by the United States Department of justice of complaints received alleging discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and religion. An investigation by an attorney in the Civil Rights Division was initiated.
This characterization of Buncombe County Schools' climate was particularly repugnant to the Board of Education. The Buncombe County Board of Education has adopted and supports a policy of non-discrimination. The Board of Education, collectively and as individual members, firmly states that it has not violated the civil rights of any student. Such accusations are offensive and an affront to the integrity of the Board.
Over the past two years, the scope of this issue has grown to the point that the entire student body, faculty, and community are polarized. Throughout their attempts to mediate this issue, the Board has continued to be receptive to the exchange of ideas and opinions. The Board has always respected the rights of all the individuals involved on both sides of the debate. The Board still believes that the process of educating the students at Clyde A. Erwin High School and allowing them to vote on whether or not to change the mascot represented the best solution to the issue.
However, the recent threat of litigation introduces a new dimension. The Board of Education's primary responsibility is to provide a quality education for the children of Buncombe County. The current per pupil expenditure in the County falls slightly below the state average. Any protracted litigation would mean the expenditure of precious financial resources. Legal advisors estimate the length of a civil rights case would be at least five years, and cost between $300,000 and $500,000. The cost of such litigation would mean diminished instructional services for all children in Buncombe County, not just those at Erwin High School.
The Board fully understands its responsibility and will weigh all factors carefully in the coming weeks. The Board of Education will meet with community and students prior to making a decision on how to respond to the complaint. Input from the community is critical to the democratic process, and the Board wants to make sure that all concerned citizens are aware of all of the facts concerning the issue. The Board of Education will address the mascot issue at its regular meeting on March 4,1999.