Ouachita Parish School Board members declined this week to voice support or opposition to petitions seeking to either change West Monroe High School’s Rebel mascot or keep it as it is.
In interviews with The Ouachita Citizen, School Board members skirted the controversy surrounding the high school’s mascot, activities and paraphernalia alluding to the Confederate States of America.
As of Tuesday afternoon, some 4,500 people had signed an online petition on Change.org called “West Monroe Rebs,” advocating the preservation of the high school’s Rebel mascot. Many of the people publicly supporting the petition said they were graduates of the high school and did not consider the mascot to be a symbol of racism, which the mascot’s detractors claim.
Jill Harter, the “West Monroe Rebs” petition organizer, declined to comment but thanked Robert Charles Payne for promoting the petition.
As of Tuesday afternoon, some 2,500 people had signed a petition on Change.org to “Change West Monroe High School’s Racist Rebel Mascot.”
The petition’s organizer, Dalia El-Giar, claimed the high school had a “long history of racism,” including its Rebel mascot.
“Originating from the Confederate soldiers who lost the Civil War, a rebel mascot is symbolic of racism and oppression in this country,” stated the petition. “Flying the Confederate flag on game days was banned only a few years ago in 2015; depictions of the flag on clothing are still allowed; and the Rebel band — dressed in their Confederate gray uniforms — play variations of the song ‘Dixie’ at pep rallies and games.”
“Many of the WMHS student-athletes are Black, and playing songs like ‘Dixie’ while girls dressed as the flag dance with the mascot formerly known as ‘Johnnie Reb’ is a clear microaggression at best,” the petition added.
School Board President Jerry Hicks was out of state and declined to offer comment when asked because of a poor telephone connection.
School Board member Shere May, who previously served as the high school’s principal, confirmed there were a handful of unsuccessful efforts to change the Rebel mascot.
“It’s been off and on throughout the years,” May said.
Like many of her colleagues, May declined to offer a comment on the petitions but claimed her focus was solely on opening schools and addressing the health and safety of students returning to the classroom.
“I really don’t have a comment on the petitions,” May said. “It hasn’t been on our agenda. We’re trying to get school up and going and running smoothly.”
“That’s our focus right now,” she added.
School Board member Tommy Comeaux took a similar stance to May.
“We’re worried about getting the schools open,” Comeaux said.
School Board Vice President Greg Manley confirmed the School Board would likely address the digital petitions once they were completed. He, like others, did not identify his position concerning the petitions.
“Once they’re finalized, we’ll discuss it and move accordingly,” Manley said. “We’re just trying to move forward and get schools open.”
Manley confirmed that any change to the high school’s mascot would be a “collaborative effort” between the principal, Superintendent Don Coker and the School Board.
If the School Board changed the mascot, it would be the first time such an action had occurred in Ouachita Parish Schools’ history, according to Manley.
School Board member Scotty Waggoner took a similar position to his peers on board, though he — unlike others — hinted that changing the mascot was not a priority.
“I don’t know that it’s anything that will be coming up anytime soon,” Waggoner said. “It’s not anything that’s been added to the agenda or that anyone is concerned about, that I know. I would think trying to get our kids back into school or normalcy with their education after this COVID-19 crisis would be more important than a mascot change.”
“I am a proud West Monroe High School graduate of 1989, if that tells you anything,” he added.
School Board members Harold McCoy and Dabo Graves were unavailable for comment.
Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding the high school’s mascot and the recent digital petitions drew opposition from two other parish officials, including a candidate for Congress.
On Aug. 23, Ouachita Parish Police Jury Vice President Jack Clampit encouraged his followers on Facebook to “take a stand.”
“I’m not known for being politically correct,” Clampit said. “A few people want to do away with the mascot for West Monroe High School. It’s been the Rebels since the 50’s. It’s not racist. It’s history. I’m a graduate of 1966. I was a Rebel then I’m a Rebel now. I believe the majority wants to keep that name (and) I believe the majority rules. Please sign the petition on Robert Charles Payne(‘s Facebook) page (and) let’s stand together. Scotty Waggoner and the rest of our school board members (-) don’t cave.”
Police Juror Scotty Robinson, a candidate for the 5th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, told The Ouachita Citizen he also was opposed to changing the mascot. Robinson played football for the West Monroe Rebels and graduated from the high school in 2005.
“I am against changing the name,” he said. “I’ve seen the petition, but I certainly wouldn’t support changing the mascot of Rebels. I don’t think it’s racist. I think people are looking for something to be offended over.”