Response from the community

The reaction to the retirement of the mascots

The+Board+of+Education%27s+decision+to+retire+the+Pascack+Valley+and+Pascack+Hills+mascots+and+nicknames+was+faced+with+backlash+and+support+from+the+community.+Several+petitions+were+created+in+the+months+that+followed.+

Matt Austin

The Board of Education’s decision to retire the Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills mascots and nicknames was faced with backlash and support from the community. Several petitions were created in the months that followed.

By Ellie Kim and Abby Shapiro

The Board of Education’s decision to retire the Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills mascots, the Indians and Cowboys, on June 22 was met with support and backlash from the public. Many community members have since questioned the BOE’s decision to remove the mascots at a meeting during the pandemic — a time when only virtual meetings were possible. Some also felt there was not enough transparency and discussion prior to the decision.

Community members voiced their opinions over social media. In under 24 hours, over 1,800 comments were left on our publication’s Instagram post announcing the board’s decision. Our publication later disabled the comment section at the request of the district.

During the board’s next virtual meeting on June 25, three days after the decision was made, 500 community members attended and out of them, over 30 debated about the mascot removal. The meeting came to an end after three hours, an hour over the original allotted time Board President Tammy Molinelli said. Some community members were not given the opportunity to comment due to the time constraint. During the meeting, Gundersen made it clear that the board’s decision would not be changed, despite protests urging for the decision to be reversed. Parents criticized the board for not providing clear notice before the meeting that a decision would be made.

“I’m deeply upset about the way that this has been done. A lot of people missed the notification that that was going to be an agenda item, as school had already been finished at that point,” River Vale resident Jennifer Falkoff said. “I don’t think the students were polled at the school. My son did not say that he was ever engaged in any sort of meaningful debate on whether or not the Indian should be removed and I think the school missed a giant teachable moment by ignoring that and by not taking those viewpoints into effect.”

Several PH parents also expressed dissatisfaction over the lack of discussion regarding the Cowboys mascot.

“I don’t really care personally about either of the mascots. To me, I got no internal remembrance as a child of it,” Montvale resident Yale Glazer said. “The entire meeting [Monday] seemed to focus on the Indians and then at the end they said this includes [the] Cowboys too. I do agree that the Indians should go, but the same level of debate was not held for the Cowboys.”

Board members Joseph Blundo and Michael Fronte expressed regret over their votes to retire the mascots.

“In my heart, I never wanted to see the mascot removed. I told them I would never change the mascot logo and I went back on my word,” Blundo said. “I am not afraid to vote ‘no,’ but the opinions [of others] moved my opinions. But deep down I was not true to myself – I voted with the fellow board members.”

Similarly, Fronte also regretted his decision to support the removal of the Indian mascot, but recognized that the “BOE was elected to represent the public interest,” and the majority of the public expressed support of the mascot removal.

“Can we put a firm date on a deadline on when we’re going to have new mascots?” Fronte said during the BOE meeting June 22. “I’m not opposed [to removing the mascot], to be clear, but I think that we [take] a steady and guiding hand in this.”

In a prior meeting on April 27, Blundo and Fronte expressed firm stances on keeping the PV Indians nickname.

“I would be opposed to changing the name from Indians,” Blundo said. “If [the Indian head logo] could become a non-offensive logo, I personally — and I’m one person — would support that, but I wouldn’t support changing the name.”

Fronte said that he would also support replacing the logo with a “less offensive” image, but he would not support changing the nickname.

“For me, I’m proud to be an Indian. I serve here, I’m an Indian; it’s what it is,” Fronte said. “I have no native background, I’m just very proud, so I’m hoping we can agree on something and if we can find a logo that’s agreeable and considered respectful that celebrates the culture and background of [Native Americans], I’d like to pursue that route.”

On June 26, the board released a district-wide statement explaining the duty of the Board, its goals, and the reasons behind the decision. All board members signed the statement, except for Blundo and Fronte. Both were unable to comment when reached out to, due to a policy preventing all board members other than the Board president from making comments to the press.

“Over the years, but even more so in recent times, it became clear in no uncertain terms that a significant number of our administrators, staff, current students, alumni, and members of the community are not supportive of the traditional nicknames, and are offended, marginalized, and/or embarrassed by the nicknames and mascots,” the board wrote in its statement.

The statement also addressed concerns over the potential cost of removing the mascots, timing of the decision, and “respecting those who want to stay with tradition.” According to the statement, board decisions are always made in public view and all community members can attend meetings through Zoom. The board also wrote that it “does not believe that it will be burdensome to the District to phase out the nicknames.”

“There are people who support the current nicknames who are genuine in their own personally-held beliefs that the nicknames represent honorable qualities such as courage, community, and honor,” the board stated. “Our disagreement with this position is not a cause for division, but rather, to work together to understand all perspectives as we move forward toward names and mascots that unify our community.”

Scher, who has faced backlash for proposing the vote at the June 22 meeting, clarified his role in the decision on his Facebook page for his reelection to the board.

“I did not call for a snap vote, I made a motion that was seconded and then the Board had a discussion publicly about it,” Scher wrote in a Facebook post. “To my surprise the discussion was very short, as I thought we would be debating it for a much longer time. After the discussion a vote was taken, I was shocked that everybody voted to retire the mascots.”

Several petitions were created in favor of and against the decision. Nathaniel Griffee, who graduated PV in 2015, said that he created the petition “Keep Pascack Valley HS free of racist Mascots” in response to the statement released by the mayors of Woodcliff Lake, Montvale, River Vale, and Hillsdale. The statement asked the board to rescind its decision to remove both mascots.

Sarah Cuomo, an assistant teacher at Seneca Academy — a non-profit independent pre-school and elementary school in Maryland — also created a petition called, “Support the removal of both the PV Indians and PH Cowboys logos and mascots.” The goal is set for 1,000 signatures, 937 of which have been fulfilled thus far.

Senior and Executive Council President Delia Collis was one of 937 students, alumni, and community members that signed Cuomo’s petition. Collis said that she understands why it took so long for this change to be implemented, but also thinks that the aftermath of the removal won’t be as drastic or dramatic as everyone thinks it will be.

“I think people are afraid of ruining a tradition,” Collis said at the Board’s July 23 meeting. “It’s a tradition we know and love. The rivalry with the Indians and the Cowboys – it’s something that’s fundamental in our brains. That’s something that is going to be hard to forget about. But if it offends certain people, there’s no need to keep [the] mascot.”

During that meeting, parents and alumni made further comments regarding the removal of the mascots.

“Being a PV alum, I find myself reflecting on my opinion of the change of the mascot, and my issue with it is the way the process worked,” Hillsdale Councilmember and BOE Liaison Anthony DeRosa, who is up for re-election, said. “The vote on that Monday night came as a surprise to a lot of people.”

Choosing the new mascots

The board will present the mascot selection process at its meeting tonight, according to the meeting agenda on the district’s site.

“There is nothing that we do as a Board that isn’t fully transparent and that any member of the community at any time [can’t] participate in,” Molinelli said.

The mascots will not be retired “overnight” and will fade away with time, according to Molinelli.

“We’re not taking every single aspect of the mascots from the past and disbanding [them] immediately,” Molinelli said. “We are mindfully and carefully retiring the two mascots.”

Staff editor Izzy Zuluaga also contributed to this article. 

This story was originally published on The Smoke Signal on October 26, 2020.