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West High School hosts first community meeting over the 'Rebels' nickname

The high school said it received a petition challenging the 'Rebels' mascot and nickname due to the school's past use of Confederate imagery.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — West High School hosted one of  two community meetings Monday to get feedback about the school's 'Rebels' nickname after a formal petition was filed with Knox County Schools earlier this year challenging it.

The school announced earlier in November it would hold community meetings at West High School on Monday, November 29 and Monday, December 6 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

West High School has used the Rebels name/mascot since the school opened in 1951, which formerly featured a cartoon Southern general mascot holding a Confederate flag. The school has since moved away from using Confederate imagery, but has kept the Rebels nickname.

West High School principal Ashley Speas sent a letter to families saying they want to hear from the community on how to move forward.

In Monday night’s meeting, about half of the people who spoke were in favor of keeping the Rebel name, while the other half argued the name was offensive and non-inclusive.

West High Sophomore Lucia McNulty is an athlete. She described shouting 'Go Rebs' as uncomfortable.

"The other people I've talked to, they do find it to be a little bit offensive, especially my peers who are not white. They find it to be a little bit exclusionary. And they do think, even if that's not the intention anymore, it definitely mirrors some Confederate imagery," she said. "I mean I said '1, 2, 3, Go Rebels!' to get ready for a meet one time because we were about to run and I felt so guilty the whole race, I couldn't focus on my sport."

She said she is relying on her fellow classmates to help make this change. 

"It does seem like a lot of community members don't really want it to change, but I feel like there's a potential for it to go through because of student support.”

The majority of people who voiced their desire to keep the Rebel name were former teachers and alum. 

"I graduated in 1985. I've been a rebel my whole life," Jeff Ownby said.

Friday night football in these parts is a community event. "Football's a little bit more exciting," he said.

For Ownby and his fellow former classmates, the rebel name is associated with his high school memories. "We're fighting rebels. That's what it means to me. I don't look at is as anything racial," Ownby said.

"I have six children that graduated from here. They're all rebels. Two of them are African American children and they're proud to be Rebels. I hope it stays. It's a sense of pride for us," he said.

The next community input meeting is scheduled for next Monday, Dec. 6 at 5 p.m., but school leaders said an official decision isn't likely to come until the spring.

"We take great pride in our efforts to be supportive, inclusive and culturally responsive," she said. "We recognize that the name ‘Rebels’ can have different meanings and connotations, and we welcome this opportunity to listen to our students, parents, staff, alumni, and other valued members of our school community as we consider how to move forward.”

Knox County Schools said mascots and team names should be "respectful of diverse cultural values," but also be "cognizant of context and honor the past and not be based solely on political pressure and/or current events."

Maryville High School had similarly seen an outcry to change its 'Rebels' nickname after a petition from students, teachers and community members. 

The high school says it received a petition back in February with 50 signatures challenging the 'Rebels' nickname. saying it needs to change because of the school's past use of Confederate imagery.