MONROE – Union County Public Schools decided to remove the rebels nickname from Parkwood High School on July 7 after members said the term violated district policy.
The use of the nickname has been a nagging issue in Union County for decades; however, the death of George Floyd in May sparked a social movement toward eliminating racial injustice and symbols associated with systemic racism.
“It clearly is offensive as we have seen the citizens voice their opinions on that,” school board member Joseph Morreale said of the rebels nickname. “ It does not respect cultural differences or values.”
School board member Kathy Heintel said Parkwood families told her the nickname conjures up Confederate soldiers, which they believe is offensive.
“Lots of teams across the country are changing their names,” Heintel said. “This is the right time to have this conversation.”
The decision was not unanimous.
Matt Helms, who represents the Parkwood area on the school board, said he could not vote in favor of the motion without knowing what the new nickname would be.
“If they do athletics this year, they are going to be Parkwood TBD, to be determined,” Helms said.
Gary Sides also voted against the measure.
Sides said he respected citizens voicing a strong opinion on the issue and applauds the district for setting up a citizens advisory committee on diversity. However, he thinks the issues go much deeper than removing a mascot.
“I condemn any sort of bullying or derogatory racial comments or discrimination in any of our schools,” Sides said. “I don’t care what your mascot is.”
Superintendent Andrew Houlihan said district staff will reach out to Principal Carole Alley to walk her through the process for adopting a new nickname. The process will likely include input from the school community, but approval will ultimately fall to the school board.
Parkwood has distanced itself from the rebels nickname in recent years. Most athletic teams have Parkwood or a letter P on the front of their uniforms. The school hasn’t had a mascot for some time. The logo currently consists of a sword and shield.
The Charlotte Observer mentioned in its Dec. 4, 1983 edition that Monroe and Parkwood used the rebels nickname with Parkwood incorporating a Confederate flag into its identity. Monroe parents at that time pushed for a mascot change only for students to vote down the measure twice within the span of a year, according to the Observer.
Monroe dropped the nickname in 1995.
Parkwood Principal Ed Davis told the newspaper that while a name change had been mentioned by a “few people” it has “not been a major issue,” according to the April 12, 1995 edition of the Charlotte Observer.
The Union County NAACP pushed for Parkwood to adopt a new mascot in 2009.
Union County Weekly reported at that time the school surveyed students on the nickname every three years. In 2008, 70% of students favored keeping the nickname. Davis told the newspaper it was a school decision.
Community weighs in
Change.org had dueling petitions. One calling for a new mascot garnered 3,838 signatures while one demanding for the school to keep its identity attracted more than 2,800 signatures.
Some of the people supporting the rebels nickname noted how it was part of the school’s history. Others mentioned they didn’t identify rebels with anything racist. One person lamented political correctness while another cited “change culture.”
Nathel Hailey, president of the Union County NAACP, led the effort to change Parkwood’s nickname back in 2009. He was among a handful of people to submit comments to the school board prior to the July 7 meeting.
Hailey told the school board rebels is “detrimental to a portion of the school population.”
Jennifer Stringfellow found Parkwood’s nickname to be offensive when she served as president of its PTSO. She ensured students had spirit wear options available that didn’t include the term.
“I understood then, as I do now, that there are many in our community who are not sensitive to the issues that make the mascot reprehensible,” Stringfellow said. “However, I believe that the current awareness of this divisive symbol should encourage your decision to remove the symbol, this evening.”
Michele Nichols, who has lived in Weddington since 1992, said she has seen the community grow more diverse.
“Let’s recognize this growth as a positive change and not hold on to the past any longer,” Nichols said. “The youth we are educating now need to also learn about the sad history of our past and the bright history of striving to be better as a nation.”
Claudia Sandoval pointed to posts made on Instagram pages Black at Marvin, Black at Weddington and Black at Piedmont as evidence that UCPS should do a better job providing safe, nurturing environments for students of color.
“The school board sets educational policy and oversees its implementation,” Sandoval said. “As there are over 300 Instagram posts from students where this policy is violated, I urge the board to immediately take action to improve the racial climate in our schools.”
Cost of change
Melissa Merrell, who chairs the school board, tried to initially steer the conversation away from the cost of changing the nickname to focus on whether members thought it violated district policy.
Merrell mentioned how a Parkwood alum, whom she did not name but said everyone on the board respected, told her how he felt tortured attending school there.
”Every time they were tortured, humiliated, called completely racist, horrible names that in order to continue playing ball and have friends at the school, he just had to smile and laugh it off,” Merrell said. “So when we start trying to put a dollar figure or a cost, I am happy to share this person’s testimony or his message that he sent to me and I’ll show you what it’s cost him and his family.”
Cost did shape the discussion, however.
School board member Candice Sturdivant initially made the motion to remove the nickname from the school, but after some discussion, she amended her motion to remove the sword and shield logo as well. She said the school needed a fresh start.
Morreale and Merrell were hesitant to change the logo because it was relatively new and non-offensive. The Cuthbertson Cavaliers, Porter Ridge Pirates and Weddington Warriors are UCPS programs that also incorporate swords into their logos.
“I think there’s a lot of other mascots that could be synonymous with that symbol to where it could be a pretty seamless change,” Morrreale said.
District staff said implementing a new mascot would cost $17,000 for uniforms and $25,800 for facilities. Staff estimated accommodating a new mascot and logo would increase costs to $125,000 for uniforms and $67,000 for facilities.
School board member Gary Sides offered a friendly amendment that the district would ask the county for additional funding to cover the costs of changing the nickname, but Merrell and Heintel preferred UCPS look internally first.
Merrell suggested the district pay for removal of the rebels moniker throughout the campus, but school boosters could pick up the charges associated with adopting a new nickname.
A school board committee will take a closer look at how to pay for nickname change if it gets to that point.