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District to phase out ‘Lee Rebels’ and introduce new name & mascot

‘A mascot should unite people’

Godfrey-Lee Public Schools will replace its longtime “Rebels” name and mascot beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

The district’s Board of Education on Monday voted unanimously in favor of the measure, following months of input from students, alumni, staff and community members. The board tackled the matter amid decades-old concerns that “Lee Rebels” and its perceived connections to Confederate symbolism did not adequately represent the district.

Rebbie, the Lee High School mascot, will be replaced next fall

“A mascot should unite people, and what we kept hearing is there were staff members, there were students, there were parents who would not wear our Rebel gear,” said David Blok, vice-president of the board. “They wouldn’t wear the mascot, they wouldn’t wear the name because of the assumptions that comes with it. We may not think those assumptions are fair, but it happens often.”

What’s in a Name?

While the board took up the question this school year of changing the names and mascot, it’s not a new topic for the district. President Eric Mockerman said the question predates his 16 years in the district. When an alumnus brought it up to the board last fall, members felt it was the right time to have a conversation, having adopted a new strategic design for the district in June 2018.

Former Superintendent David Britten, now the historian for the district, narrated a video history of the Lee Rebel mascot. While  the “Lee” in Godfrey-Lee is derived from Lee Street and not the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, students historically made that association, evidenced by Confederate imagery in old Lee High School yearbooks and pictures of majorettes twirling Confederate battle flags. As late as 1992, the Confederate flag was on display in Lee High School’s library.

Much of the obvious Confederate symbolism has faded from school grounds, but the association remains, especially for those outside the district.

“What it brings to mind isn’t the same for everybody,” said Jackie Hernandez, board trustee and parent of two graduates and three students in the district. Having grown up in the South, she said, she was keenly aware of how “Lee Rebels” could be perceived.

“When this whole discussion started, I was 100 percent ready to change the symbol of the Rebel,” said Board Secretary Tammy Schafer, referring to an option to keep the Rebel name and change the mascot’s appearance. “I wasn’t ready to change the name ‘Rebels’ until I saw it through another person’s eyes.”

Schafer shared a story from a female student in a focus group: while walking through the mall in her Rebel gear, the young woman was approached by a man who asked if she supported slavery.

“I don’t think our students, our staff, our community or our alumni should ever have to define, defend or explain who we are.”

Mockerman agreed.

“We shouldn’t have a mascot that has to have context to it,” he said. “We can’t have above our entryway to the football field, ‘Lee High School – Home of the Rebels, but not those rebels – we’re different than that.’ We can’t put that on a T-shirt.

“As long as we are Lee High School and have the Rebel mascot, that context will always be drawn… I believe it’s a disservice to our students to continue. If one of our goals is really to be dedicated to equity, we owe it to our students to change it.”

Mockerman said his feelings are complicated, having a daughter who attended Godfrey-Lee Schools from preschool through senior year, a “Rebel for Life.”

“It’s been a pretty emotionally-charged issue for everybody,” he said. “We have a seven-member board. Six of us have students who are alumni, several of us have children still in the district. Some are at the point with grandchildren in the district – so there’s a lot of ties, a lot of history.”

This isn’t the first time Mockerman has set aside personal nostalgia and ties to a mascot to examine its broader context: As a 1996 graduate of Ottawa Hills High School, he was an Indian.

“I was proud to be an Indian. I bled orange and black. I still have a closet full of gear with Indian heads on it. I also understood the need for change. I understood the terminology was offensive to some,” he said. Ottawa Hills has since changed its mascot to the Bengals.

It’s the same with the Rebel, Mockerman added: “I have no less than four stickers with the Rebel on it on my car currently. It’s a part of who we have been. But … I want people to see the brilliance that is our kids, and I don’t want anything to taint that.”

School Board President Eric Mockerman

Driven by Data

Superintendent Kevin Polston said the board engaged in the process of deciding whether to keep the Rebel name and mascot with open minds. “They let the narratives and the data drive their work,” he said.

The board reached out to districts that have undergone similar processes, including Belding, which voted in 2016 to drop its Redskins mascot, and Paw Paw, which voted in 2017 to keep its Redskins mascot.

The district held two forums for the community, attracting 55 participants total, and held a focus group comprised of 12 high school students from Lee High School and East Lee Campus. Finally, it collected information through a survey, garnering 133 responses from alumni, students, staff and community members.

Junior Isabell Lazcano participated in the focus group.

“When we think of ‘Rebels’, we think, ‘we stand up for ourselves, we break barriers,’” she said. “I think keeping the Rebel name but changing how it looks would be a good idea, because it’s respecting the ideas of people who do want to keep it.”

But she said she gained a greater appreciation for arguments against keeping the Rebel after watching the video that Britten created: “I can see why some would want to change it.”

‘If one of our goals is really to be dedicated to equity, we owe it to our students to change it.’ — School Board President Eric Mockerman

Student body President Erick Chavarria, a senior, is sentimental about “Rebbie,” and also didn’t see a need for change. After hearing the discussion at Monday’s board meeting, he said he better understood how the Lee Rebel could be perceived.

“I think change is something that we should always look forward to,” he said. “We’ll enjoy our last year as Rebels.”

Taking the Next Step

Polston said it won’t be possible to replace every athletic uniform and representation of the Rebel by next fall, and that use of the Rebel name and mascot will be phased out. The district will maintain historical references to the Rebels, the Rebel Hall of Fame will keep its name, and alumni will continue to be recognized as Rebels.

“It’s a part of the fabric of our history,” said Polston.

Polston said the board will appoint a work group of stakeholders – students, staff, board members and community members – to create a timeline and work to adopt a new mascot.

“I’m proud of the school board for having the courage to deal with a very difficult topic,” he said.

Despite the Rebels moniker being on everything from uniforms to his Twitter handle, Jason Faasse, Lee High School athletic director, said he thinks the board’s decision was the right one: “I’m proud of the work they’ve done.”

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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting.


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