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This fight can bring us long-term harm

By A Contributor

I attended the school board forum Wednesday night at Manhattan High School to listen to student and citizen input on the proposal to change the school’s symbol. After listening to all sides, I do not envy the school board the decision it needs to make because it seems to me that one side more than the other desires a zero-sum decision in which one wins and one loses, and very little mention of compromise was made by those advocating to replace the symbol. This will be very bad and divisive for MHS and our community.

To me, ReImage MHK representatives argued for tolerance, inclusivity and understanding, but only on their terms. They seemed unwilling to accept that those who favor the symbol consider the image respectful, inclusive and celebratory of the community’s Indian history and their heritage. I was also struck by the fact that many citizens of Native American heritage favored keeping the symbol because they viewed it as a great source of pride and recognition of their cultural roots. Those claiming Native American ancestry are clearly divided on this issue; it is not a monolithic bloc of opinion by those most affected by claims of cultural disrespect and negative stereotyping.

I believe an overwhelming majority of the school and community favor the symbol. I know my two daughters do as graduates. Feelings and support run deep among alumni; I sat in front of three members of the Class of 1965 who drove from Wichita to attend the meeting because this issue was so important to them, and I was very impressed with Mr. Prentup’s heartfelt comments to the board.

From personal experience as a retired high school principal dealing with a proposal to change a school mascot, I know that feelings for traditions run very deep and arouse intense feelings. I also know how a small but vocal minority can dominate an issue surrounding school change, whether it involves cookies before school in the cafeteria, dress codes or myriad other concerns. If the symbol is changed, don’t be surprised to hear thousands of alumni say, “That’s not my high school anymore.” What a sad legacy to have created. A common bond of pride and tradition between the past and a new future might be irrevocably broken. And to be fair, those who feel that the symbol is disrespectful to them should not have to say the same thing — that this is not their high school either.

We live with a political tradition that respects majority rule but ensures that minority rights and values are protected. This principle should apply in this situation as well. If we as citizens want to make our community work, we must stop beating each other up by emphasizing our differences and refusing to acknowledge that the opposing side has valid concerns.

We should instead emphasize that we share many values and desire a community where citizens can work together in a respectful way to arrive at equitable solutions to what might appear to be intractable issues. When we are contemptuous of each other and insist on scorched earth tactics to prevail on an issue, we will not be united as a community. And in this case, we will set a terrible example for the children in this school district.

To do what is best for all students at MHS and for our community, I think the school board should consider delaying its decision, as painful as that might be, since this issue has been on the radar for much of the past year and many want it settled.

I would recommend that the superintendent be directed to form a working group of students, faculty and community members representing both sides to work on a compromise acceptable to all. I personally favor keeping the symbol, but greater efforts must be made to educate the students on its significance and meaning, and incorporate real, not superficial, respect for American Indian values into the school culture.

Through more than 40 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and in public education, I am convinced that young people will rise to high expectations. When asked to take responsibility for an issue, and with some firm adult guidance, the student government can be trusted to make good decisions, and in the process learn valuable lessons about self-governance and civic duties. Even better would be participation by the school’s Native American Club, if one exists, to help frame a compromise.

I would hate to see an issue that I feel is being driven by some ideological and adversarial adults have such a detrimental and divisive effect on the school’s students and faculty. If I were the principal, I would very much fear that the school’s learning environment and culture would be severely disrupted for a long time as the vast majority of students would resent and struggle to accept a decision to remove a symbol they clearly want to keep.

I would also be concerned about the effects on alumni support if the symbol is eliminated. I suspect that the booster club would not be happy, but it would continue to support school activities because that is the right thing to do for the students.

The school and community need to find common ground on this issue, respectful of both sides’ concerns and values. If we don’t find common ground and seek the things that can unite rather than divide students, the school as a whole is going to suffer on a level most people do not understand. What hypocrites we will be when the welfare of students and their learning environment is compromised while we try to convince everyone that this was done in the students’ best interests.

In closing, I find it ironic and comforting that “The Chief” on the wall in the lobby of Manhattan High School can look to the sky and often see U. S. Army helicopters overflying Manhattan. What he sees are CH-47, UH-60, and AH-64s, more commonly and affectionately referred to as Chinooks, Blackhawks and Apache gunships. The Army has a proud tradition of naming its helicopters after Indian tribes out of respect for a former foe’s war fighting prowess and warrior traditions.

I hope that any who are perpetually on the prowl for things that offend and hurt them and possibly threaten Manhattan’s diversity and inclusiveness can, at the least, leave the U.S. Army alone.
Bob Funk, 4112 Wellington Drive, is a retired Marine and retired high school principal.

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