The committee’s action followed a nearly three-hour virtual forum on Tuesday, June 16, at which many residents, including past and present students, urged the Rebels name be dropped, while some spoke against the move.
Committee chair William J. Buckley, Jr., who was among several members who had previously opposed dropping the Rebel name, said he was prompted to rethink his position by the strong support for the change voiced by “a wide cross section of the community,” including student athletes, recent alumni, students, and graduates of color.
“I truly believe this is a good day for Walpole,” he said, though adding, “This isn’t a victory, it’s an opportunity for the community to come together and move forward in a different direction.”
Under a process the committee approved as part of its vote Thursday, a panel of students and other community members will evaluate potential new names to replace “Rebels,” and those it recommends will be placed by the committee before High School students for a vote.
Lindsey Sullivan, who with fellow 2018 Walpole High School graduate Rachel Bagley led a petition campaign that gathered about 5,200 signatures in favor of the name change, said she was pleased by the committee’s action.
“This decision gives Walpole an opportunity to value inclusivity, understanding, and most importantly Black voices in our schools and in our community,” she said. “It represents a commitment to a school environment where every student feels heard, valued and empowered. I’m excited to see how the School Committee continues to prioritize this commitment moving forward.”
In addition to the petition, a group of students, graduates, parents, and residents wrote an open letter to the School Committee earlier this month urging that the Rebel name be dropped. More than 3,300 people, meanwhile, signed a separate petition to keep the name.
Across the country, the widespread protests over police killings of African-Americans has sparked renewed efforts to remove Confederate monuments and other symbols of racism.
The Walpole School Committee in 1988 barred the use of Confederate flags on school uniforms and the playing of Dixie. The committee reaffirmed that position in 1993 and again in 2015, when it opted against dropping the Rebel name but agreed to try to rebrand it.
Many of those pushing the change this time around contended that the rebranding was not working.
“There is no way, not a single way, that we can rebrand the name. You cannot rebrand racism, pain, disrespect, and isolation,” Bagley said at Tuesday’s forum.
“Changing the name is a gesture that will show the community that Walpole is on the path to change and to creating a more inclusive and diverse learning environment,” she said.
“It should be clear that we no longer have any affiliation with any sort of Confederate name or imagery,” said Megan Schwartz, a Walpole High School science teacher. “We are a place for students to learn and grow and not have to question what their school represents.”
Chris Sullivan, a 2000 Walpole High School graduate and the school’s current head football coach, spoke at the forum in favor of keeping the “Rebels” name, citing what he said was its actual, positive symbolism it held for the school.
“A rebel is a free thinker, someone who rises up against opposition and who exemplifies pride, accountability, leadership, and respect,” he said, qualities the school tries to instill in its athletes. “You respect not only yourself and teammates, but your opponents as well.”
Courtney Landi Cunniff, another supporter of keeping the Rebels name, said when she moved to Walpole and became acquainted with the moniker, “I never would have associated either the town or the people with the Confederacy in any way….Our nation’s flawed history has no bearing on what it means to be a Walpole Rebel today.”
“Being a Walpole Rebel is having the courage and determination to unapologetically be yourself, to not let anything or anyone stand in the way of your goals,” she said.
But Mikaela McSharry, a 2018 Walpole High School graduate, called eliminating the Rebel name “an act of inclusion.”
Citing the current national movement towards a more racially just and egalitarian society, she said, “I encourage you as a School Committee to align yourself and Walpole at large with the right side of history and signal to your students of color that you care about and for them.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.