The dispute has divided the former mill town in woodsy northeastern Connecticut, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, but voters overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. For years, students at Killingly High School had periodically suggested that the name should be changed. But according to the Hartford Courant, the idea didn’t gain momentum until the spring of 2019, when a student was allegedly pelted with fruit and called racial slurs, prompting a larger discussion about racism.
Student leaders polled the campus community, and found that a majority of teachers and staff agreed that the mascot should be retired, while most students wanted to keep it. Killingly is more than 90 percent white, and Terren Allen, one of the few black students in her class, told the Courant that many of the anonymous survey responses included offensive comments. At least one suggested replacing the team name with a racial slur targeting African Americans, she said.
Many adults in town objected to what they saw as an attack on long-standing community traditions. The local newspaper, the Killingly Villager, was swamped with letters from Killingly High School alumni, railing against “woke” virtue signaling and political correctness run amok. Some objected to the fact that teachers had been polled for their opinions but alumni hadn’t, and argued that those advocating for the change were largely “outsiders.” Others claimed that the mascot helped keep Native American history alive.
“Why is it ignored that team name choices are compliments?” one couple wrote. “What high school chooses a weak symbol as their team name and mascot?”
At a contentious Killingly Board of Education meeting in June, Eric Gould, a representative of the Nipmuc Tribal Nation, pushed back on the notion that the mascot was somehow a tribute to his ancestors, who were the area’s original inhabitants. “You can’t honor someone if they don’t want it,” he said, according to the Courant. “On behalf of the Nipmuc Nation, no thanks.”
School board members ultimately voted at the June meeting to hand over the decision to the tribe, which had already expressed firm opposition to “demeaning” Native American mascots. In October, Killingly High School officially became the home of the Red Hawks.
But the battle was hardly over. As the Courant reported, Republicans seized on what had become a wedge issue during an election year, warning that the change would be “just the beginning of the elimination of our town’s traditions and culture if Democrats take our seats.”
The controversy led to the highest voter turnout in over a decade, and Republicans were rewarded with a supermajority on the school board. One seat went to Jason Muscara, a vocal opponent of the name change who had faced scrutiny for serving as vice president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Guard, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group. (Muscara told the Courant last year that he joined the group because he was under the impression that it was dedicated to supporting military and law enforcement personnel, but left after other members made him uncomfortable. He denied holding racist or white supremacist views.)
One of the Democrats ousted in the shake-up, Jeff Buchbinder, told the Courant that expressing support for the new mascot meant committing “political suicide.” Allen, the student who had campaigned for the change, added that the backlash “has made me question the values of my community members, the people I’ve known for most of my life.”
The newly elected school board voted to ditch the Red Hawks name at a December meeting that devolved into screaming matches as residents took turns accusing each other of being communists or racists, the Norwich Bulletin reported. But there wasn’t enough support to bring back the Redmen name, creating an awkward stalemate where the football team headed into the state championships with no name at all.
Plenty of parents and alumni made their feelings clear at the final championship game against Weston High School, the Courant reported. Some wore sweatshirts with slogans like “Born a Redmen, Raised a Redmen, Will Die a Redmen.” Others blamed the dispute on “snowflakes” and described Redmen as a “term of endearment” and “spiritual thing.”
The controversy became a distraction for players, who ultimately lost the championship game, Killingly High School Athletic Director Kevin Marcoux said at Wednesday’s school board meeting. “Everywhere we go,” he said, “we are the laughingstock of the state.”
Throughout the hours-long meeting, where the issue was taken up once again, no speakers expressed support for the old name, WFSB reported. Instead, many students, teachers and community members expressed concerns that it was disrespectful and would make Killingly look like an intolerant, bigoted backwater.
Still, the board voted 5-4 to bring back the Redmen name, splitting largely along party lines with only one Republican opposing the reinstatement. As part of the motion, officials agreed to look at updating the team logo, which depicts a war bonnet traditionally worn by Plains Indians, and to introduce educational curriculum on Native American history so that students “do not form the idea that it is acceptable to stereotype any group.”
Hoween Flexer, a Democratic member of the Board of Education, fought off tears while talking to reporters after the vote.
“The people who have been directly impacted have spoken,” she told WFSB. “And we chose to not listen to them.”