In Lenox, how do you discuss potentially changing a school's mascot? Carefully

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LENOX — Two students leading the drive to remove the unofficial Millionaires nickname as the mascot at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School say they were "impressed and surprised" by the regional and national media attention to the ongoing controversy earlier this summer.

But in a statement read to the televised School Committee meeting this week, sophomores Julie Monteleone and Josie Usow acknowledged they had not expected the debate to become "such a point of division within our community."

"Our goal in changing the mascot is to take one small step toward making Lenox a more welcoming and inclusive environment, providing students and the community with a symbol that unites and excites rather than divides," Monteleone stated.

Usow pointed out that an online survey this summer on the school district's ongoing strategic plan included a question on whether there should be consideration of a change in the mascot. "A majority of all four polled groups voted strongly in favor of this consideration," she told committee members.

In response, School Committee members offered mixed reactions to the game plan — a binding vote by town residents at next May's annual town election on whether or not to uphold the nickname. The referendum may include a recommended or suggested replacement.

Citing a student survey last spring showing two-thirds of participants favored changing the nickname, Monteleone said she and Usow are pressing ahead with their efforts to represent the students' voices "toward finding a solution."

While recognizing that the decision can't be left up solely to the students, she declared that "our voices in this matter are equally important as the voices of the community members and the alumni. We feel our role in presenting students' perspectives is vital to appropriately discussing this topic."

Referring to the planned referendum next May, Usow suggested the next step is for students to suggest new names for the mascot.

Usow, saying she was speaking on behalf of fellow students, voiced "immense amounts of pride in being part of such an open-minded community. As students who have grown up in Lenox and attended Lenox's schools, it has been the only home we have ever known. We don't believe our legacy within this town ends with our high school graduation, and therefore this mascot belongs to all of us."

School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan supported the idea that any effort to eliminate the Millionaires mascot should be accompanied by a recommended new name. He suggested that without a new nickname, a town vote simply to dump the current mascot might be "more divisive."

"I'm not convinced that a townwide vote is appropriate on this issue," said committee member Molly Elliot. "I'm still wondering what is the proper procedure, since we're not dealing with anything official."

"It's debatable whether it's official or not official," school board member Neal Maxymillian responded. Citing the long history of the Millionaires name, "I have trouble just dismissing it because it's not written in any official document or policy book."

He said he's uncomfortable with the idea that the seven-member committee should usurp the entire community's right to weigh in decisively. "There's too many people who have lived in this town for a very long time who would not be comfortable" with that outcome, Maxymillian added.

"I'm interested in trying to have the best `buy-in' and support possible for what comes," Elliot declared, "and I do think the students' voices are important."

As Maxymillian commented, "whether you like the name or not, it's something that's the town's history." He voiced reservations about the idea of "re-branding" the high school through a marketing consultant. "It seems disrespectful," he said.

A video documentary shot in one week's time this summer by two recent LMMHS alumni, Tyler Coon and Patrick Colvin, came in for high praise from Vaughan and several committee members for helping clarify the issues.

The 40-minute video, "Millionaire," was screened at the LMMHS Duffin Theatre last month. "It was nothing short of amazing," said Vaughan.

The extensive committee discussion at Monday's meeting, which can be viewed online (www.ctsbtv.org) or on CTSB public-access education cable channel 18, ended on a "stay tuned, to be continued" note, as the students promised to keep the board updated as the debate unfolds.

Contact correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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