MELROSE — For now, the teams and clubs at the city’s flagship school will be known as Red Hawks.
On Tuesday, the School Committee narrowly approved changing the decades-long Red Raider moniker at Melrose High to something which supporters of the move call “less offensive.” While all seven board members voted to discontinue the Raider name, at least two of them wanted Red and White. Red Hawk, longtime School Committeewoman Margaret Driscoll pointed out, is the name of a Native American tribe.
This night was always going to be a difficult one for School Committee members and administrators like Principal Jason Merrill and Supt. of Schools Dr. Julie Kukenberger. Information brought to light Tuesday made it even more so.
The School Committee to a person felt it was time for a name change, since the Red Raider at times in the past has been associated with indigenous people and carried, in their minds and those of others, a negative connotation. This ran counter to how many people sitting in the meeting audience felt.
Former School Committee member Wendy Golini talked with pride about being a Melrose High graduate and a lifelong Red Raider. She said many in the community felt intimidated about speaking in favor of keeping the name for fear of being maligned. Longtime Red Raiders, she told the committee during the public comments part of the meeting, “have been called racists by people they’ve never met.” She also explained that she searched her high school yearbook recently and did not find anything having to do with native Americans. The school, she said, never had a mascot, let alone one that symbolized indigenous people.
Speaking for many friends who are Melrose High graduates, Golini said the Red Raider “is an important part of who we are.” She said they are not ignoring an important part of the history of our country, but added that those who are proud Red Raiders are “part of the evolution and growth of Melrose.”
The first commenter at the meeting, who spoke remotely, was Betsy Garrett. She talked about the need to change the Red Raider name because it is an appropriation of native American culture and identity. She preferred Red Hawks or Trailblazers.
Jim Bennett called the Red Raider name “a fundamental blemish on the community I love.”
Caroline Cronin supported removing the name, saying to do so is taking “nothing away from people who graduated from Melrose High.” She said she also fully supported the process that has been followed in coming up with another name for the high school’s sports teams and clubs.
Christine Hickey of The Transparency Initiative could not have disagreed more strongly. Hickey produced findings from a Freedom of Information Act request that showed early email correspondence between School Committee Chair Jen McAndrew and one Melrose High teacher as well as correspondence between Kukenberger and a student who originated the move to get rid of Red Raider. These exchanges began in May of last year, about two-and-a-half months before Jason Merrill said he decided it was time for change. The move, Merrill added in an August letter to the school community, was not based on other people’s thinking or agendas.
“I am making this decision because 5 years ago I signed a contract to take responsibility for what I consider the most important building and people in our city,” Merrill wrote.
Information distributed by Hickey revealed that on May 13, 2021 an English teacher at the high school wrote to McAndrew about a student’s idea of “taking on the Red Raiders name as her raise awareness project. She seems really passionate about it.”
On May 30, the student — said to be McAndrew’s daughter — wrote an email to Kukenberger. It stated, “I am in the tenth grade. For the tenth grade English ‘ism’ project I have decided to explore a campaign to change the name of the school from the Red Raiders to something else. I know this will be a long project and will involve a lot of community input and discussion. Even though the project is due in a few days I am planning on continuing my work over the summer and into the fall. I am interested in your thoughts on what a future plan for this project might be.”
On June 1, Kukenberger responded: “Thank you for your email and for reaching out to me directly. I am excited to learn you are interested in pursuing this important project beyond your course requirements. I would value the opportunity to meet with you and discuss your project and what you have learned so far. I am also thinking a lot about the naming of our elementary schools after white, male Presidents.”
Christine Hickey said, “Who is kidding who? Clearly there was an intent to deceive the public as to the origin of this movement. Clearly Principal Merrill was pursuing an agenda driven by the Chair of the School Committee and the Superintendent of Schools (Merrill’s boss).”
Hickey went further, mentioning Kukenberger’s controversial time as head of schools in Scarborough, Maine.
“In her short tenure in Melrose, Dr. Kukenberger has managed to tear another school community apart. First with a secretive and orchestrated effort to eliminate the Red Raider name, followed by a national controversy created when she elected to remove the Halloween Celebration from our schools. Now we know we can look forward to her next agenda item, changing the names of our elementary schools because she has a problem with white male presidents.”
Hickey concluded, “The School Committee has a responsibility to the families of Melrose to get this administration back on track teaching our children after one of the most disruptive periods in the history of public education. The actions which have taken place have the potential of compromising the integrity of the entire Melrose School Committee — the political body charged with oversight of the administration. The School
Committee must restore its integrity and the public trust by ending this process immediately.”
The School Committee may not have ended things with its vote to rename Melrose High the Red Hawks. One of those who spoke during the meeting this week urged members to put the name of Melrose High sports teams and clubs to a city-wide ballot vote. Opponents of the name change could choose to do that. However, in other communities where school boards have made similar moves, those ballot questions have mostly been non-binding ones that officials don’t legally have to abide by.
When it came time for the School Committee to vote later Tuesday night, the decision was broken into four parts. Members unanimously aapproved keeping the block M as the Melrose High logo. The entire School Committee backed the discontinuation of the Red Raider name. The new name vote took a little longer, with Margaret Driscoll saying she didn’t think replacing the Red Raider with Red Hawk was the “right move.” She also said by maintaining the block M logo, Red and White made more sense as a moniker.
The fourth part of the vote involved rebranding and discussing costs associated with changing the name of Melrose High’s teams and clubs. That will be done the second School Committee meeting in May.