Shrewsbury School Committee votes to keep “Colonial” mascot

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By Laura Hayes, Contributing Writer

Sandra Fryc and Lynsey Heffernan during the June 23 meeting. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

SHREWSBURY — The Colonial is here to stay.

The School Committee voted 3-2 to keep the Shrewsbury High School (SHS) mascot on June 23 with Chair Jon Wensky, Vice Chair Sandra Fryc and member Dale Magee voting to keep it and members Lynsey Heffernan and Jason Palitsch voting against it.

Any future updates to the image of the mascot will occur at the high school level.

“In my many years on the committee, this issue is the most divisive that I have encountered,” Fryc said.

Many of the committee members commented on the tone conversation. Heffernan described it as “polarizing” and “vitriol,” saying it was “disheartening to me because I don’t believe that it represents the core values of the community.”

This was the first time that the School Committee voiced its opinions on whether to change the mascot.

Before they weighed in, Wensky said the School Committee had received 227 emails over the past two weeks.

“In my six years, I’ve never seen the volume of correspondence on any issue,” Wensky said.

Reading comments on social media, Wensky said people have suggested that the decision was already determined. He called those assertations “baseless” and “false.”

“I can say with full transparency and honesty, we have not had a chance to discuss this among the five of us,” he said. “We can’t unless we’re at this meeting.”

The committee’s decision comes after community members and alumni voiced their arguments for keeping or changing the mascot June 16.

This question of whether the mascot should be changed started after a SHS student submitted a petition asking the School Committee to change the mascot. Soon after, a counter-petition was submitted requesting the mascot be kept.

The School Committee tasked Superintendent Joseph Sawyer with forming an ad hoc committee. That committee offered two recommendations: change the mascot or update its presentation.

Before the School Committee members voted, Sawyer gave his recommendation — keep the “Colonials” nickname but update how the mascot is presented.

As part of the update, he suggested that there should be educational opportunities for students and the community on why the mascot was chosen and the historic context of the mascot. That was unanimously approved by the School Committee.

Arguments against ‘Colonials’

Dale Magee listens to Jason Palitsch. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

A Shrewsbury graduate, Palitsch recalled having “colonial” in his high school email.

Listening to residents, Palitsch said it was clear the town favored celebrating its Revolutionary War history, which he said he supported while also acknowledging that the war or resulting nation wasn’t perfect.

There’s a difference between the mascot and the nickname, Palitsch said, explaining that the mascot was the image or costume and nickname was the “Colonial.”

He favored keeping the mascot, but said he had more of a “challenge” with the nickname. The Colonial period preceded the Revolutionary War, he said.

“Colonial” may not be the best word to represent Shrewsbury’s Revolutionary War history, he said.

“Personally, I think the notion that we’re ever fully going to divorce the word ‘colonial’ from ‘colonialism’ is a bit of a stretch,” Palitsh said. “Too many syllables in common.”

Heffernan said there were “valid concerns” regarding the inclusivity of the “Colonials.”

She said she based her opinion on the district’s core values and mission.

The district may need to take responsibility for its actions, particularly if the district caused harm to people who are connected to the Nipmuc Nation or don’t view a Caucasian male as representing everyone, Heffernan said.

“In time, I think we as a community are going to find that our current mascot with using the Colonial that we’re on the wrong side of this issue,” Heffernan said.

Arguments for ‘Colonials’

Superintendent Joseph Sawyer and Chair Jon Wensky during the June 23 meeting. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

Magee said the committee was considering if it was “valid to judge” an 18th century individual by 21st century values and if the “revelation of their failure” negates their good work.

“My interpretation of colonial is a very benign one,” he explained. “It’s a patriotic one. It is the person who opposed the Colonialist government of England and started us on the pathway we are continue to be headed to today.”

Fryc recalled receiving an email from an incoming SHS senior, who is also a minority. The student said many students support keeping the mascot, which was also indicated by a community ThoughtExchange, she said.

“I think it is critical to note that this is not a racial issue,” Fryc said. “We do not have a situation where a racial minority has been disenfranchised by the mascot.”

Changing the mascot would be “divisive” and “cause divisions in the SHS community,” she said.

Let’s use this as a teaching moment, he said. There are multiple interpretations of “Colonial,” both good and bad, he said.

“Changing the existing mascot, I don’t think will get the desired impact, I really don’t,” Wensky said.