EUGENE, Ore. — To Julia Scher, a freshman at South Eugene High School, the school’s team name, the Axemen, represents “all the ways in which girls are considered second at our school.”

In a statement to the Oregon State Board of Education, Scher, 15, said the male-gendered moniker has an effect on students, whether they see it or not, and that the name perpetuates long-standing discrimination under the guise of tradition.

“The mascot name, Axemen, has made me, and many of my teammates and friends feel excluded and less important than the boys, not just in athletics, but everyday in little ways, all over the school,” Scher said. “I realize that the name Axemen was not created with the intention to discriminate against girls. It was created a long time ago, when girls were not considered strong enough to compete in sports. As a lifelong athlete, I am glad those days are long over, but unfortunately, we still live with many leftover issues, including unequal locker rooms, attitudes about girls sports, and the name Axemen, which excludes everyone who does not identify as male. These leftovers affect girls’ lives by keeping stereotypes alive and feeding into the idea that girls are not as worthy as boys.”

Scher read her statement, titled “I am not an Axemen,” to the board earlier this month in the hope that the board would add a rule or policy barring schools in Oregon from “discriminating on the basis of gender” through their team names and mascots.

No state or local district rules currently prohibit Oregon public schools from using gender-based mascots or team names.

Only a handful of high schools in Oregon have gender-based mascots or team names, including the Astoria High School Fishermen, the Grants Pass Cavemen, the C.S. Lewis Academy Watchmen, Benson Polytechnic High School Techmen and the Sherwood High School Bowmen. Oregon had 247 high schools in the 2016-17 school year. Almost all of the schools are represented by animal mascots.

Giving “Axemen” name the ax not a new idea

Scher is not the first student to propose changing the Axemen team nickname.

District spokeswoman Kerry Delf recently confirmed that there have been “some student-generated petitions and discussions about changing the Axemen name in past decades.”

Scher said she’s well aware of that.

“This complaint about the Axemen being gender discriminatory has been filed twice before,” Scher wrote in her statement. “I know I’m not alone. I hope you can understand how the Axemen and other male-gendered mascots are shushing girls in other Oregon schools, too. They are not learning about equity or equal rights, or how to be confident, or how to be leaders. They are learning how to be quiet and how to be shushed.”

The district acknowledged that the team name dates to an era of all-male sports teams — a fact noted in the school’s online history:

“The axe was the first symbol that students and athletes rallied around at the school, and the team name The Axemen has been in use for some teams since the 1930s, a time when interscholastic sports teams were all male,” the district website states. “Over the years, and again recently, students, parents and community members have raised concerns that the team name The Axemen may not be inclusive of all athletes and students.”

Whether the Axemen team name will continue to represent South Eugene High School remains to be seen, but a community forum scheduled for Wednesday in the school’s auditorium is likely to provoke a spirited discussion.

The district has invited students, alumni, Eugene district staff and interested community members to share their thoughts on whether it’s time to change the Axemen team name. Hundreds of signatures on a petition already attest to support for changing South Eugene’s team name to one that is not gender-specific.

At least one person created a counter petition to keep the Axemen name. That petition also has garnered hundreds of signatures.

School officials are hoping that people can disagree Wednesday without becoming disagreeable.

“We’re hopeful that we can have a civil conversation and arrive at a decision that will allow us move on to topics that are equally deserving of time and discussion,” Andy Dey, the principal at South Eugene High School, said Monday.

The district crafted the survey to gather community comments, and it has received about 3,600 responses so far. District staff say they will consider the survey responses before making a final decision on whether to keep or change the Axemen name.

Issues of tradition and change

For many alumni and others in the community, the team name “Axemen” has sentimental value. The name has been synonymous with South Eugene High School for more than 90 years.

Others are willing to consider a name change, but they think bigger issues should be addressed first. Some of those issues include allegations of potential Title IX violations at South, such as the differences in size and cleanliness of the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms, and alleged unequal access to basketball courts, turf soccer fields, locker rooms and storage sheds.

Title IX, enacted by Congress in 1972, bans gender discrimination in education programs that receive federal money.

Delf said that the Title IX concerns raised by parents and students at South generally are not accurate.

She said the boys locker room is slightly larger than the girls’, and that the school’s athletic program has “taken pains” to ensure that athletic court and field access and use of storage sheds is distributed fairly between teams.

Scher, in a phone interview Saturday, acknowledged some of the so-called “larger issues,” but she said the team name conversation is an equally important piece of the overarching problem: gender inequality.

“I feel like the mascot thing is kind of the shelter for these other discrimination issues,” she said.

“I see a lot of great work being done, but it’s being done separately and individually. We should work together and support each other in each step that we do for equality for everyone; we shouldn’t choose between changing the mascot and changing the locker rooms.”

Delf said that the district has hired a consultant from Good Sports Inc. Title IX and Gender Equity Specialists to conduct a full program review of both athletic facilities and athletic programs covering all three sports seasons.

Delf said the review is not related to any complaints filed on the topic and likely won’t be complete until summer.

Scher has been thinking about the issue for years.

“When I was around 5, I went by the school and was reading the signs and I read ‘Axemen,’ and thought it was an all-boys school,” she said. “It’s been on my mind for a long time, and I want to change it. I want people to be treated equally and spoken to equally, too. I hope that this will help my younger friends or younger sibling’s friends feel included and happy to work on their education without feeling excluded.”

Dey said he plans to make a recommendation about the Axemen name to Superintendent Gustavo Balderas in early February.

School and district leadership then will consider all submitted comments and information before deciding next steps.


Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com