Should Hays High silence the Rebel yell? School board to reconsider Rebel mascot, fight song

June 13, 2012

Following a vandalism incident at Hays High School in which two 14-year-olds are accused of writing racially motivated graffiti and urinating on the classroom door of a black teacher, the Hays CISD community appears once again divided over the use of the school’s Confederate imagery.

Some parents and community members are calling for the removal of the Rebel mascot and the school’s fight song, “Dixie,” saying they contribute to an attitude of racial intolerance.

But there are also passionate arguments for keeping the school’s traditions alive because many say those traditions have to do with pride, not hate.

Superintendent Jeremy Lyon said the district is working to develop a response to the larger issue of racial intolerance within the district that is not reactionary to the vandalism.

“I want to do it right,” Lyon said. “We’re going to treat this in a way that’s built to last.”

Lyon said he and the Board of Trustees have also begun to explore the issue of how the Confederate imagery may play a role in the community as well as how others outside Hays County perceive the district because of it.

“The context of how we feel about allegiance to the fight song and mascot must be balanced against an external audience and how it feels,” Lyon said.

He said he will discuss with the board whether or not to go down the road of changing the high school’s mascot and fight song.

“The trustees represent the values of the community,” Lyon said. “This recent incident gives the board an opportunity to examine that issue.”

Use of the Confederate flag at Hays High was banned about 10 years ago following another racially charged incident.

Former Hays CISD Trustree David Wiley was on the board when school officials created a policy that does not allow Confederate flags on campus or at athletic games.

“There is a subtle racial undercurrent at Hays High,” said Wiley, whose daughter graduated from the school and was the band drum major.

Wiley said that undercurrrent is not conveyed by the school district but is perpetuated by members of the community.

“For the high school students, it [the mascot, fight song and flag] was just pride and spirit, but the adults knew exactly what this was about,” Wiley said.

He also said he thinks there is a phenomenon he calls the “Hays Bubble” — people who lived in the county their entire lives may not realize the school’s Confederate imagery is offensive to other people outside the local community.

At the time of his board term, Wiley said the Texas Education Agency received complaints from other districts that competed against Hays High School in UIL sports, which is why the board decided to tackle the Confederate flag as the school symbol. The board did not try to remove “Dixie.”

“Banning the flag was a big enough bite of the apple,” Wiley said.

The mascot, a caricature of the school’s namesake Capt. Jack C. Hays, had his Rebel flag and guns removed during the last community-wide debate.

In 2000, school officials created a policy that does not allow Confederate flags on campus or at athletic games. Clothing and other accessories with the Rebel flag are also banned at Hays High, and students who wear such items run the risk of having them confiscated.

One person who may have been more adamant about adhering to the dress code was the teacher who was the target of the racially tinged vandalism, Wanda Murphy.

Murphy is also said to have been a vocal opponent of the Rebel mascot and fight song. Indeed, some community members who contacted the Hays Free Press, or commented on the paper’s website and Facebook page, indicated Murphy made the Rebel imagery about racial discrimination.

A comment by “HaysMom” illustrates this viewpoint:

“This teacher is well known for speaking poorly about this school and its traditions meaning the flag and mascot. The rebel flag was flying at HHS long before she became an employee.”

A comment by “Lori” echoes that sentiment:

“This teacher used her position to impose her beliefs.”

Similar comments appear to be a thinly veiled attempt to place blame on Murphy for the actions of the two teenagers in question. District officials are quick to support Murphy, who did not respond to requests for comment.

“Blaming the victim of a crime for the crime is reprehensible. No one deserves to be victimized because of their beliefs, opinions, or positions on issues,” said Tim Savoy, Hays CISD spokesman.

The superintendent asked the Anti Defamation League for help with the broader issues of racial attitudes towards others and maintaining a positive environment for students and employees free from intolerant, hurtful or hateful attitudes and action.

“The district strives to achieve a place where diversity is not only respected, but celebrated,” Savoy said.

In response to the debate sparked in the aftermath of the vandalism, the Hays Free Press conducted a non-scientific online survey to gather input from readers and other community members.

The poll garnered 750 responses from across the age and ethnic spectrum, as well as length of time in Hays County.

The results show sharp divisions on both sides of the issues among those who participated.

On one side are those who believe the Rebel mascot and Dixie song are simply about Southern pride and school tradition, not hate or prejudice.

On the other side are those who think the mascot and fight song need to be changed because they evoke the country’s painful past with slavery.

The majority of respondents said the Rebel mascot is an appropriate representation for the school, with those in the youngest and oldest age groups showing the strongest agreement at 84 and 75 percent, respectively.

Hays High students who took the survey feel more strongly than other age groups that the imagery of the mascot and fight song are not tied to racism and are instead linked to school pride.

Of survey respondents younger than 18 years old, most of whom say they are Hays High students, 84 percent do not want the mascot to change. An equal amount of the youngest respondents also do not want to see the fight song changed.

Sixty-five percent of the respondents who are older than 65 want the mascot to stay, while less than 70 percent of the middle age group cohorts agreed. Three quarters of older respondents want the school to keep Dixie as the fight song.

About a third of respondents in each of the remaining age cohorts think the district should change it.

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