Nov 17, 2022

Hays searches for unity in light of divisive debate on high school mascot

Posted Nov 17, 2022 2:41 PM
About 80 people attended a community meeting Tuesday night on rebranding of Hays High School. Photo by Cristina Janney/Hays Post<br>
About 80 people attended a community meeting Tuesday night on rebranding of Hays High School. Photo by Cristina Janney/Hays Post

Hays Post

A consultant brought in by the Hays USD 489 to look at the rebranding of Hays High and Hays Middle schools told a community forum that the responses from a rebranding survey were very positive but lacked cohesiveness.

The district is in the process of building a new high school after a bond was passed in May.

District officials said they wanted to look at the rebranding for the school before construction begins next summer.

No action was taken on the rebranding process Tuesday night, but about 80 people attended the community meeting — some with very differing views.

More than 600 people — students, parents, alumni and community members — responded to a survey on a possible rebranding. The results of that survey were released for the first time Tuesday night.

"All of what we are talking about with the Hays High School Indians is very topical," John Jenson, consultant, said. "It is what we call a sensitive mark. All across the country, I'm dealing with these Chinooks and the Savages and Red Raiders and the Redskins and the Warriors everywhere I go."

Jenson is employed by Jostens. He provides his services free upon request to schools across the country. The district is not paying for his services.

"My goal tonight is to let you know what you think you are going to be moving forward," he said.

File photo<br>
File photo

The survey asked what it means to be an Indian. Although a few respondents said being an Indian is racist and disrespectful. Jenson said the majority of the survey respondents said they felt being an Indian was positive. This included words like tough, courageous, gritty and intelligent.

"People love this place," he said. "There's no denying it."

He continued, "The problem is not that people don't love it here. The problem isn't that the Indians don't mean something. It just doesn't mean the same thing."

He said Hays can't be all things.

"With a lack of definition of who you are, anyone can say whatever they want," Jenson said.

Jenson visited the high school on Tuesday.

"I saw 21 different versions of an Indian," he said. "Some of the things are not versions that I would have on the wall, but over the years, they're there. It is no wonder that someone might walk in and say that's offensive. And I might say, 'Yeah, that could probably come down.'"

With the new building in the works, Jenson said this is the best time to further focus on what it is to be a Hays High student.

"This is the best time for you to say this is who we are, this is what we look like, this is what our colors are. This is a chance for you to come closer with clarity and unite not a time to get further apart," Jenson said.

A totem pole at Hays High School. File photo<br>
A totem pole at Hays High School. File photo

When asked about the current culture at the school, respondents also gave many positive answers including loyal, pride and innovative. Respondents also described the culture as white, resistant and stagnant. A survey respondent also said German.

"If someone drives by and sees your flag flying, what do you want them to say?" Jenson asked. "All I would say is get on the same page and you will be onto something that most schools are not onto."

Ruth Legleiter, Hays resident who had previously spoken at a school board meeting about the mascot, said she was very frustrated because she has sent emails to the school district about the rebranding committee and received no information in response.

She said she wanted to know who was going to be on the rebranding committee and how they are going to be selected. She has offered her services to that committee. She said she wants the school district to be more transparent in the rebranding process.

Jenson said he personally recommended school officials not take any steps to form a rebranding committee until after the rebranding community meeting Tuesday. He assured Legleiter the rebranding process would be transparent.

"I'm looking for the truth," Jenson said, "because when the truth is big enough and strong enough people will wrap themselves around it and connect to it and isn't that what we want?"

One community member said she thought grit and resilience best described the school and the bond process. She said Rockwell, in which the meeting took place, was built during World War I. She said that was a symbol of grit and resilience.

Another audience member brought up the Kansas Board of Education's recent recommendation that all Kansas schools abandon Native American mascots within the next three to five years.

Another audience member suggested the current images and symbols being used at the high school are not reflective of the native people who lived in the Hays area or Hays at all. These include the war bonnet and totem pole.

"I think if we are going to do something that is representative of something tough and resilient, I think we should find something that is representative of Hays, Kan.," he said.

At least one respondent to the survey suggested the high school retain the Indian mascot, but explore the true nature of what it means to be a Native American and honor that.

Yet another audience member said the emotion over the high school mascot was a symptom of a larger community problem.

"You have a community who wants to be exclusive and inclusive at the same time. It wants to be welcoming and build new schools and have new people come in but have nothing change in the process," he said.

He said Hays tends to be cliquish and can be a hard place to break into.

A woman said she moved to Hays a year and a half ago and said others like herself have considered leaving because of the attitude toward the mascot.

"What makes someone strong is admitting they made a mistake and fixing it," she said. That is what strength is. This community can choose to do that or it can dig in."

There was a question on the survey that asked about changing the middle school mascot to the Indians. Those answers were mixed. Many respondents wanted to know the costs of a change. Jenson said more discussion was needed.