The stars-and-bars of the Confederate flag painted onto a Juanita senior's face in 1999. Two years earlier, Juanita students shouted racial slurs at the mostly black Garfield High School football team. They sent an apology banner. 
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The stars-and-bars of the Confederate flag painted onto a Juanita senior's face in 1999. Two years earlier, Juanita students shouted racial slurs at the mostly black Garfield High School football team. They sent an apology banner.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Casey Martin

Mascot with Confederate ties faces a vote at suburban Seattle high school

A Kirkland high school voted today, Thursday, on whether to drop their mascot: the Rebels.

The debate has been fierce among Juanita High School students past and present. Some call the Rebel a hateful, racist symbol, while others counter that it’s a patriotic nod to the American Revolution.

This conversation parallels one in the news since the Charlottesville riots last summer, and the arguments are similar. This spring, an Oregon high school ditched the Rebel mascot after abandoning the Confederate flag and soldier also once used by Juanita. Students at a California high school last year also ousted their Rebel mascot.

The Rebel is, after all, a symbol of the Confederacy, and by association, the preservation of slavery – a connection that Juanita High School students have openly embraced in the past.

Consider the cover of the 1990 yearbook.

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In the center is the Juanita crest: a coat of arms with a bald eagle, Mount Rainier, and Lake Washington. Behind the crest are the stars and bars of the Confederate battle flag.

In the 1986 yearbook, a photo of a Juanita crowd waving the Confederate flag was used for the table of contents.

And a photo in the 1999 yearbook shows a senior having the stars and bars being painted on his face before a football game.

Beyond the symbolism has been an apparent comfort with unabashed racism.

In 1997, Juanita hosted the predominantly black Garfield High School football team. This was the first year of a new athletic league that combined city and suburban teams.

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At the game, several Juanita High School students showed up with the Confederate flag painted on their faces. Students yelled racial slurs at the Garfield players, and the N-word was keyed onto a Garfield coach’s car.

The game remains etched in the memories of Garfield High School alum. They were scared and angry, and they weren’t mollified when Juanita sent an apology banner.

“F*#ck those cowards,” wrote a former Garfield High School football player on Facebook this week.

Passionate Juanita alumni say they are disgusted by these images and what happened with Garfield and are steadfast that the actions of a few do not represent all Rebels.

On an alumni Facebook group page, they say they are dismayed the Rebel name is being misrepresented.

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Oreo Harris, class of 2000, wrote: “Being one of very few black kids in the school at the time, I never felt uncomfortable or threatened. Got on pretty much everybody. Had a pretty awesome experience for being a high schooler. I’m a Rebel, baby!”

Official school history says the Rebel was chosen by students because of the upcoming bicentennial and because the high school was rebelling against traditional education with open classrooms and flexible schedules. They call it the “Juanita Method.”

It’s clear Juanita students carry that history with pride. “Once a rebel, always a rebel,” they’ll say.

But those pushing to remove the Rebel say the mascot hasn’t been used only to celebrate American rebelliousness and educational innovation.

Collis Overton, class of ’77, described his fraught experience as a black student at Juanita: “In the mid-70s, Confederate flags and soldiers were all over that school. It made me uncomfortable. I am African-American. Out of 1,200 students there was less than 10 Black students.”

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An alum from 1998 described a corner of the outdoor square frequented by black students nicknamed “Compton Corner.”

And some white alumni have had a change of heart since hearing these experiences.

“I’ve always identified as ‘Once a Rebel, always a Rebel,’” said R.S., who attended Juanita in the late 90s.

“I’ve been following this whole debate, and there are a few experiences that some minority alumni gave,” R.S. said. “Seeing a picture of a Confederate flag — either at a game or an assembly — it just opened my eyes and changed my mind about the whole thing.”

R.S. asked to identified by his initials, because he fears online harassment. On the alumni page, those who support getting rid of the mascot have been shouted down.

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“STUPID,” “Triggered liberal,” “Social justice warrior,” and “Piece of shit snowflake” are common responses. (Some of these comments were deleted after KUOW reached out for further comment.)

Despite the emotional response both for and against the Rebel mascot, the deciding power resides with the current student body.

On campus on Tuesday, some of those students discussed their mascot. They all agreed they don’t care as much as the alumni.

Some said the school isn’t racist now, so there’s no need to get rid of the Rebel. A senior who is black said she supports keeping the Rebel – removing the name erases its history, good and bad, she said.

If we are to learn from past racist actions, she said, we should educate students about why the Rebel evokes more emotions than just patriotism and school pride.

Students who support the rebel have argued the Rebel should be reframed.

Keep the mascot, they said in a statement, “for the progress and social movements it could embody, for rebels outside the U.S. that you would have or would support, and for what course unlike any other you, as people, will take no matter how with or against it is to the established routes.”

Janet Manuel Richards, a resident in nearby Redmond, doesn’t see it that way. She reached out to KUOW to share her perspective as a black neighbor. Richards said she moved here a decade ago from North Carolina, and that the region’s progressive values were a draw.

The Rebel symbol was prominent back home, she said; seeing what she called “hateful imagery” here was shocking to her.

If more than half the students (695 of 1,388) vote to remove the Rebel, a new name and mascot will be chosen next year.

The results of today’s vote will be announced Friday afternoon.

UPDATE: Juanita High School did not announce the results of the mascot vote Friday as originally planned.

A spokesperson for Lake Washington School District, Shannon Parthemer, told KUOW Friday that "they have postponed the vote count to ensure that all students have a chance to participate in the vote. Votes will be counted on Monday afternoon and results will be announced at the end of the day on Monday."