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Mascot supporters turn out in droves for Lancaster budget meeting

Supporters of the Lancaster Central School district’s former mascot stood in the hall outside the School Board meeting chanting, “Let’s go Redskins, let’s go” Monday night.

What normally would have been a quiet, sparsely attended school board work session on the 2015-16 budget turned raucous as 100 to 150 parents, community members and students filled the board room.

“Robbed us of our name without a vote. What’s next?” read one sign held by a resident in the Board of Education meeting room.

But the small room could hold only 45 people, and Lancaster Police Officer Pat O’Brien said the size of the crowd was in violation of the fire code, and asked most of the people to leave. There was no public comment period scheduled at the meeting, he noted, before giving instructions for those who could stay:

“There will be no comments, no head shaking, no gestures. This is not a public forum. Does everyone understand that? No comments, no outbursts, no gestures, no laughing, snickering, shaking of the head, things like that,” said O’Brien, who also is the high school resource officer.

The door was shut and the meeting went on as planned, with Jamie Phillips, assistant superintendent for business and support services, giving a rundown on the tentative $99.94 million budget. But she was nearly drowned out by the people chanting in the hall, and she moved closer to the board so they could hear her.

The School Board officially retired the “Redskins” mascot on March 16, saying that although the intent of the nickname and mascot was not to offend Native Americans, it is offensive. Hundreds of students staged a walkout of the high school and middle schools Thursday in protest of the elimination of the name, and of the process the board took to retire it.

After Monday’s meeting, Redskins supporters surrounded several cars, including the one driven by Superintendent Michael Vallely, but he was able to drive out of the back parking lot with the assistance of police.

Demonstrators standing outside the school before the meeting were disappointed that board members and staff entered through a back door. After the meeting ended, board member Michael Sage left, walking down the front hall through a crowd of people who yelled at him. Other board members and staffers left by the back door.

Vallely and Board President Kenneth Graber declined to comment, and district spokeswoman Patricia Burgio said it was the “wrong place and the wrong time” for demonstrators to talk to the board.

“Board work sessions don’t provide an opportunity for public comment,” she said. “It was a case of them showing up at the wrong place and wrong time, if they wanted to have the opportunity for public expression.”

She said the district did not intend to shut anyone out of the budget session, but it could not allow everyone to stay in the room. Regular meetings are held at different schools in the district, where there is room for more people. Public comments are accepted at regular meetings, she added.

“Obviously this is an issue we need to continue to deal with,” Burgio said.

Jennifer Phillips, a Native American who lives in Lancaster, went to school in the district from sixth grade on and has two children, was one of those who showed up Monday night.

She said she likes the Redskin name.

“If anything, when I first moved here, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. It honors us. It keeps us out there where we’re not forgotten,” she said.

She said while some family members disagree with her, she is sorry she did not speak up at earlier meetings.

“I regret not going to them, because I would have been the one to stand up and be the positive, the one who would have stated she was proud to go to a school that’s name is Redskins and represented Natives,” she said.

Lancaster resident and graduate Jennifer Vacanti said the issue is not going away.

“We’re not done with this,” she said.