The foyer to Wells High School’s athletic center prominently displays the school’s mascot. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

WELLS — The Wells Mascot Advisory Committee may have violated state open meeting laws Wednesday when it voted by secret ballot to make its recommendation to the school board on what to do about the Native American imagery associated with its high school mascot.

The committee was authorized by the Wells-Ogunquit School Committee to make a recommendation about the current use of the Warrior nickname and its associated Native American images, which are present in several areas of Wells High and its facilities.

On Wednesday, 22 of the 27 committee members voted for one of four choices via a secret ballot. The results were not released and it wasn’t clear how many committee members attended the meeting.

After the meeting, Committee Chair Rick Coyne said he wanted to keep the ballot secret for two reasons: to allow the other five committee members to vote without influence and to make sure every member could voice their opinion – “even those who don’t want to speak up.”

However, by voting in secret, the committee violated the Freedom of Access Act, said Sig Schutz, a First Amendment attorney who represents the Portland Press Herald.

“That’s the most egregious possible violation of the public meeting statute. The one huge no-no is voting in secret,” Schutz said.

The Mascot Advisory Committee does not have decision-making power. Its task was to study the issue and make a recommendation to the school committee at its June 6 meeting.

Apprised of Schutz’s opinion, Wells-Ogunquit Superintendent James Daly said he would consult with the district’s attorney Thursday morning. Daly noted that all of the committee’s meetings have been public and that the volunteer group, which includes school committee chair Helena Ackerson, high school principal Eileen Sheehy, coaches, high school students and community members, had taken on a difficult and emotionally charged challenge.

“I still believe that we didn’t violate the law, but the bottom line is we just wanted to do the right thing about discussing this mascot and moving the community forward,” Daly said. “If we did make a mistake, I will make sure we vote publicly. If it turns out there was an unintentional violation, we’ll rectify it. Absolutely.”

The 25-person Mascot Committee was authorized by the school committee in November, roughly three weeks after Amelia Tuplin, a Micmac from Lisbon, alleged that fans at the Oct. 13 Lisbon-at-Wells football game mocked Native American culture with their actions. Tuplin’s complaints quickly escalated into a statewide story and produced a heated backlash from community members who felt her allegations unfairly targeted the community for routine actions that had no intent to offend.

But Daly and the school committee felt it was important to address the issue of Wells’ continued use of Native American imagery with its mascot. Wells and Skowhegan (Indians) are the only high schools in Maine currently using Native American images associated with their athletic teams.

Since its formation, the Wells Mascot Advisory Committee has held discussions with indigenous leaders from Maine, including Tuplin, held meetings and most recently hosted a public forum for Wells and Ogunquit residents to discuss the issue. Before Wednesday’s vote, it appeared that the committee, based on its brief conversation, was in agreement with a plan to recommend keeping the Warriors name and eliminating the Native American images of a man in profile with a two-feathered headdress. It also seemed likely that the bulbous “W” with a feather attached would be recommended for elimination.

Each committee member was given a sheet of paper with four options: keep the Warrior nickname and discontinue the use of any Native American imagery; keep the Warrior nickname and the Native American imagery; discontinue the Warrior nickname and discontinue the use of any Native American imagery; keep the Warrior nickname and keep the current Warrior logo of the red “W” with the feather. There was also room for comments, which Coyne told committee members could be used for making suggestions.

Following the meeting, before it was clear that the secret ballot could be disallowed, committee members reacted to what they thought was the end of their work.

“We’ll know more with the vote, but it feels like everyone’s thinking is on the same page; we’ll get rid of the imagery and keep the (Warrior) name,” said Meghan Schneider, a Wells High senior and three-sport athlete. “Hopefully, also get rid of the feather. A big part of what I took away is that our whole community has a very open mind about everything that’s going on. Everyone listened to everybody and we heard both sides and I think everyone was willing to listen and learn.”

Joe Searles, 71, a 1966 graduate of Wells, said he benefited from learning about Native American culture.

“I’d heard it before and I thought, ‘Why are they being so picky about it? But when they come and explain their culture and how it affected them and their beliefs, I think the school didn’t realize that we were offending them and their religious beliefs,” Searles said, adding that a good decision for him would be, “to keep the Warrior name definitely and I would like (the logo) to be a square, block form ‘W’ because we’ve got to change it.”

During the committee meeting, Daly emphasized that any recommendation should be for grades K-12, not just the high school, and that if removal of Native American images is undertaken it should be at all schools. The current nickname at the junior high is Raiders.

Daly emphasized that the final decision – regardless of the Mascot Committee’s recommendation –will rest with the school committee.

Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or:

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