As mascot debate continues, Lenox School Committee defends school choice students

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LENOX — All students in the town's public schools should be treated equally, whether or not they are Lenox residents.

That was the firm message directed toward the faculty and staff during last month's meeting of the School Committee.

"Once we accept students under the school choice program, they become part of our school community, with equal opportunity to participate in anything we do," School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan said during the televised meeting.

The unusual declaration comes amid tensions regarding the school's informal mascot and nickname for its athletic teams, the Lenox Millionaires. Several past public statements have implied that nonresident students enrolled through the school choice program are partially responsible for the drive to change the name.

Many students and some residents complain that the nickname causes heckling and taunting of Lenox school athletes by competing team members. Longtime locals consider the mascot a proud emblem of the town's Gilded Age history, since millionaire "cottagers" offered gainful employment to residents and generously funded school buildings.

A binding townwide vote is expected to be taken as part of the local election ballot next May.

According to the official enrollment totals submitted to the state at the beginning of October, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School and Morris Elementary School have 758 students — 429 residents and 272 from other communities attending through school choice, or 36 percent of the total.

"People may or may not love the school choice program," Vaughan said. "But once we've accepted students, they're part of us. I just want to make sure faculty and staff understand that, regardless of how they may feel about school choice. They're our students, and it's important to make sure everyone remembers that. We've chosen to accept them, and they're now part of our school community and should be treated the same way we treat any student."

Explaining why the issue was on the committee agenda, committee member David Rimmler cited the video documentary produced last summer by two recent Lenox high graduates, "Millionaire," which included several comments contending that much of the student opposition to keeping the mascot comes from nonresidents enrolled at the schools.

Rimmler said the public statements by a current and a previous staff member, including an Eagle letter to the editor, left the impression that "there's a group of students within our school that are to blame" for stoking the mascot controversy.

"I felt that to single out one group, to make an unsubstantiated claim about a group of students in our school system, is somewhat reckless and divisive," Rimmler said. "It probably approaches the line of prejudice."

He suggested that "if I was a parent of a choice student and I read or heard these comments, I personally would be offended. I would wonder what is going on at this school."

Rimmler urged that the School Committee speak out by declaring that "there aren't Lenox residents and Lenox nonresidents. There are only students."

Stressing that the matter was "of great concern to me," Rimmler told committee members that "I'd hate to walk into a classroom and know that an individual in a position of authority who has influence over me and my future at the school could actually think that I'm a second-class citizen."

In response to Rimmler's remarks, Vaughan restated on behalf of the School Committee that "we want to make sure that our nonresident students feel that they have the opportunity to participate as equally as any resident students. I would hope there wouldn't be distinctions in classrooms such that there would be any concern that somebody's education might be compromised or that a nonresident student would feel that they're not being treated the same as a resident student."

Committee member Neal Maxymillian pointed out that "certain classrooms and certain extracurricular activities wouldn't be as robust or even possible without school choice." He cited Advanced Placement French, "which would probably be half the size" and the school band, "which wouldn't be able to be an actual marching band were it not for the important contributions of choice students."

Addressing Rimmler, Maxymillian said: "I'm sad to hear about the examples you've cited, but hopefully, we're getting the message across now, loud and clear."

The Eagle letter to the editor published Sept. 29 from Scott Sibley, a lifelong resident, Lenox high graduate and athletic coach, referred to a student body vote last March showing a two-thirds majority in favor of dropping the Millionaires mascot.

"How many of those votes were school choice students?" Sibley wrote. "They should remember they are attending the high school by choice! They could go to a school that has a much less offensive nickname if they wanted."

Sibley also questioned the expected townwide vote. "How fair will taking a vote be? Do second-home owners care? Will out-of-town alumni be included? Change isn't always for the better; be proud of what you have and leave it alone. Go, Millionaires!"

In the documentary by recent graduates Tyler Coon and Patrick Colvin screened for the public at the Lenox high school auditorium last August and available on YouTube, faculty member Brian Shepardson was asked whether he had been aware that the nickname had been unpopular. He suggested that the sentiment was shared "mostly from school choice kids who have not lived here. The kids that lived here their whole lives, and whose parents have lived here, all seem to love it."

During the video, lifelong Lenox Dale resident Tom Bosworth cited the number of choice students in the district, adding that "a school choice student living somewhere else probably doesn't appreciate the history of the Millionaires name."

Vaughan expressed the hope that those public statements "aren't affecting kids in classrooms or on athletic teams."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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