Lenox students seek change from 'Millionaires'

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LENOX — Who wants to be a "Lenox Millionaire?" Apparently, many students don't.

Once again, the Lenox Memorial Middle and High School's mascot for its sports teams is coming under fire as Student Council members urged the town's school board last week to abandon the nickname because of strong student opposition to the slogan.

Based on a poll of students, the council members reported a 2-1 majority in favor of retiring the mascot because, they say, it's considered offensive by many and leads to bullying of Lenox Memorial players and local spectators by out-of-town school athletes.

The 27-question survey, recently distributed during the school day, was completed by 78 percent of the middle and high school students, Assistant Principal Brian Cogswell told The Eagle. Of those who responded, 67 percent favored dropping the "Millionaires" mascot while 33 percent were opposed.

"The survey came out of a goal to better represent the students' wishes," Student Council representative Josie Usow, who's completing ninth grade this week, told the School Committee. She cited monthly meetings with Cogswell on goals for the school year.

"We decided to finally address the issue of whether the students wanted to change the mascot name," she said. The survey asked students whether they agreed or disagreed with the following: "I would support changing the Millionaires to another mascot."

Usow noted that Superintendent Timothy Lee had urged the student council to examine the history of the "Millionaires" mascot.

They consulted with Francie Sorrentino, a School Committee member and cafeteria staffer at Lenox Memorial, as "someone very knowledgeable of our town, and we gained deep insight on the name's background." said Usow.

"We learned how the millionaires who owned 'Cottages' in Lenox helped build the school, pay for uniforms and overall supported our residents," she pointed out. "They were central to the survival of Lenox while many citizens left to fight in wars. The `Memorial' in the school's name honors the people who did not return from war, and the `Millionaires' mascot commemorates the wealthier citizens who helped our community."

Student Council member and current ninth-grader Julie Monteleone acknowledged that "while the name beautifully memorializes the millionaires who supported our school and town during a difficult time, the majority of our student body feels no longer represented by the name."

"Instead," she said, "it divides us within our community, especially because we rarely have a chance to actually explain the meaning behind the name."

Monteleone asserted that many Lenox students "will tell you of times when they've been bullied because of the `Millionaires' title. Maybe they'll talk about how they're embarrassed to wear school jackets in public for fear of being made fun of, or about going to basketball games, listening to spectators make rude comments regarding the mascot. This is not an unusual thing for the students of Lenox."

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Explaining that "the problem goes deeper than some simple high school bullying," Monteleone said "in today's polarizing political climate, the term `millionaires' has become associated with the top 1 percent of our country, which excludes and burdens a very large majority of the population and currently plays a large role in the division of the United States."

She called for an effort to unify the school, the town and "the world around us."

Completing the three-student tag team, 10th-grader Jimmy Jay Chassi outlined a plan for the 2017-18 school year to pursue the issue by gauging the opinion not only of students, but also the faculty and the community.

He also advocated continued meetings with Assistant Principal Cogswell and other school administrators, "who have been extremely helpful and have been willing to listen to the voices of students at Lenox Memorial."

Chassi outlined a mission of bringing the school together and building pride for the school.

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Addressing the committee members, Chassi said "we love Lenox Memorial and this community, we aren't doing this because we dislike the school. We're doing this because we're incredibly proud of it and we want all of the students to be well-represented and as proud as we are."

School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan promised that the issue would be discussed at the board's annual August brainstorming retreat.

As the students exited, Vaughan thanked them for "coming in and being so articulate. We expect that, of course, of all of our students."

With the support of the School Committee, Superintendent Lee said he would add a question to the upcoming annual strategic plan survey distributed townwide on whether the Millionaires mascot should be replaced "by another team mascot or name that would better represent the students and will allow students to feel more pride in their school."

Survey respondents can check a range of responses from strongly agree to strongly disagree and also add comments.

"We know we're going to hit a large proportion of our population when this goes out," Lee said, including faculty, staff, parents and other community members such as long-term residents of the town "who may have strong beliefs and feelings about the mascot."

At the urging of several committee members, Lee agreed to make the survey available to the entire student body as well in order to confirm the findings of the Student Council poll.

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"It's a very strong response, it should come back the same if it's a similar method," committee member Robert Munch suggested.

"I agree with Bob, when they're in the classroom, sometimes it's peer pressure to go one way or the other," Lenox Memorial Principal Michael Knybel said.

The issue has surfaced informally several times in recent years but failed to gain traction with the community at large.

Many residents, especially multi-generational families with deep roots in the town, remain fond of and deeply loyal to the slogan.

But state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, a third-generation resident, said that while he is not personally offended by the nickname, "I find it somewhat embarrassing, a running joke here in the Statehouse."

Noting that the name appears to have been coined by an Eagle sports editor, Roger O'Gara, in the early 1950s, Pignatelli stressed that "there's no historical significance, no historical tie to the Gilded Age. My dad (former Lenox Selectman and County Commissioner John J. Pignatelli) was a star Lenox athlete in the 1940s and he was never called a millionaire."

In a phone interview from Beacon Hill, Pignatelli applauded the Lenox students for "being engaged, and I'd like to think we could come up with a better name. To use that phrase when people young and old are struggling is a poor reflection of what Lenox is all about."

He urged the school board to perform due diligence and make a recommendation. "I think the School Committee could make the decision very easily if they choose to," Pignatelli said. "If they're afraid to, put the issue to a town meeting."

But Francie Sorrentino, a third-generation resident, stated in an email to The Eagle that she believes the future of the mascot is not up to the committee or the school administration.

"This is a communitywide decision and should go to a vote, it should be on the town ballot," she said.

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


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