SKOWHEGAN — School officials say they plan to talk to the district’s lawyer next month about how to deal with issues surrounding the ongoing “Indians” mascot controversy at the same time that a coach’s Facebook post showing a “scalp towel” has reignited debate about school policies.

School Administrative District 54 Superintendent Brent Colbry said the district’s lawyer, from Drummond Woodsum in Portland, met with the school board in May to discuss “general advice” about how to deal with the contentious issues of using Indians as a sports mascot and nickname. Also in May, following months of heated debate, the school board narrowly voted to keep the Indians name despite calls from Indian tribe representatives to stop the practice.

The law firm will meet again with the administration in October as a continuation of that general discussion, but not in connection with the Facebook post, Colbry said.

Meanwhile, the latest eruption in the controversy is prompting more school policy questions. Baseball coach Rick York posted on Aug. 6 a Facebook picture of a scalp towel, which was used as an accessory during school sports events in the 1980s and has a picture of a hand holding a bunch of hair. The towel and other “Indian” caricatures were done away with by the school board a few years later.

The photo was publicly posted, tagging school board member Jennifer Poirier, with the message, “Probably shouldn’t wear this tonight … no I won’t.”

Poirier responded, “LOL probably shouldn’t” with a smiley face.

It was posted the same day members of Maine’s Indian tribes and their supporters planned to appear at Skowhegan’s River Fest to set up an informational booth to call again for removing the nickname. Members of the four tribes of the Wabanaki Nation have opposed the school’s “Indians” nickname, saying its use is degrading and that they are people who still live in Maine, not mascots.

York, in emailed comments Wednesday, said he was sorry and didn’t mean to offend anyone with the post, which was still up on his Facebook page Wednesday night.

“That picture is out there (to) remind you that towel is circa 1987. Times have changed,” he wrote.

York’s Facebook post was pointed out to school officials in a letter from Maulian Smith, who is leading the effort to have the school district stop using Indians as a nickname. A member of the Penobscot tribe, she is the founder of the Not Your Mascot Maine Chapter Facebook page.

“I understand that these were something the booster club used to sell about 20 years ago,” Smith, of Indian Island, wrote of the scalp towel. “Certainly times change, but to have people in your school administration posting pictures of such a racist and offensive image and then joking about it greatly concerns myself, my tribe, and many parents and citizens in your own community.”

Colbry said that because York isn’t a school district employee, he can’t do anything about the post. The superintendent said he has spoken to Tim Downing, chairman of the SAD 54 board, and to Don Finley, the school’s athletic director, about the matter.

“There’s not much really we could do about that. Obviously, that happened. We’re concerned about it too. It’s not a good thing to have happen,” Colbry said Tuesday. “Going forward, there will be talks this fall with the district’s lawyer about how do we avoid those kinds of situations from happening.”

Downing responded to Smith that the school board seeks to “appropriately address” all issues involving the school system.

“That being said, due to confidentiality laws, we can’t discuss or divulge specific personnel issues in public,” Downing wrote. “I can tell you that I have the utmost confidence that the issues raised are being addressed in a professional manner and that the end result will be a heightened awareness on appropriate public discourse.”

Downing wouldn’t respond to requests for comment.

Colbry said York is a contracted athletic coach for the baseball season and not an employee of the school district and that the Facebook conversation was a private one and that “the only policy we have is that if somebody were to use school computers to engage in something that is offensive, that would be an issue.”

While Colbry termed the conversation private and York said he “sent the picture” to a former Skowhegan classmate — Poirier — “and no one else,” the privacy settings on the post are public, allowing anyone to see it.

In addition to Poirier’s response, others made jokes about the towel. All the responses said “LOL,” which is digital parlance for “laugh out loud.”

NO SPECIFIC POLICY

Colbry said there is no specific policy for staff, coaches or school board members addressing the sports mascot issue other than that they shouldn’t say anything that could be deemed offensive.

Skowhegan is the last high school in the state to have imagery that Maine’s Indians have asked to be removed after other schools have changed names or imagery.

Colbry said the school board had its say on the matter in May when it voted 11-9 to keep the Indians nickname and to keep the official insignia of an Indian spearing a fish in the Kennebec River.

“That vote left the current policy in place. It does allow the approved symbol that the board approved 12 to 15 years ago, and none of that has changed,” Colbry said.

“There is no specific school policy limiting what people can say or write in their own private lives,” he added. “We do prohibit by policy the use of school computers in any way that would be harassing, discriminatory or threatening. There is no generalized school policy addressing (this) type of issue. We take any issue that is within our control very seriously and will continue to do so.”

York, who has been baseball coach for nine years at Skowhegan, said in an email that he has stayed away from the controversy over the Indians nickname. He said he regrets posting the photo.

“The towel dates back to 1987 — high school — I found it in a box in my garage,” York said. “I took a picture of it and sent it to a classmate of mine, just her, no one else. Yes, I wrote on the post to her, ‘I shouldn’t wear this tonight … No I won’t.’ What was meant by it was that was then, this is now.

“In hindsight I regret sending the picture because it has been misinterpreted and I have been labeled something I am not,” he said. “I have stayed neutral in this debate. I have turned down numerous requests for interviews about this subject. To me, it is a school board decision and that is where this lies.”

The same holds true for Poirier, Colbry said, noting that “what somebody does in their private life on their own Facebook is not something I can comment on.”

Poirier, who wouldn’t respond to requests for comment, also is the administrator of a closed Facebook group called Skowhegan Indian Pride, which supports continued use of the name “Indians” as the high school sports nickname.

‘BARBARIC PRACTICE’

Debate on the school’s nickname issue has generated letters to the Department of Education and the Maine Human Rights Commission and has gotten the attention of the Bangor chapter of the NAACP.

Smith has singled out York’s post about the scalp towel as an offensive extension of the larger issue.

“Scalping is a barbaric practice that involves removing the top of one’s head with a sharp implement to kill a person,” Smith wrote in a letter to the editor of the Morning Sentinel about the Facebook post, sent Sept. 3. “In 1775 the English Spencer Phips Proclamation was a call to those in America to use scalping to rid the country of Penobscot people citing their ungodly status.”

“It is insulting to me that these people in leadership roles in the community feel entitled to mock and poke fun at the history and tribes that they insist they ‘honor’ with their Indian mascot,” she said in the letter.

She said Wednesday that prices were set for the scalps of men, women and children in an effort to exterminate the tribe.

The scalp towel post is “getting attention nationwide as a heinous and flippant display of bigotry and racism,” she said.

Scalps were commonly referred to as “redskins,” one reason it is considered a racial slur by many Indians today, according to the website www.native-languages.org.

Doctors, lawyers, educators and business leaders have called on the school district to drop the name because it is offensive to the people that supporters say it’s meant to honor — Maine Indian tribes.

Others in the community, including members of the SAD 54 board, are holding fast to their belief that keeping the Indians mascot name is their heritage and what they say is their way of channeling the power and strength of the people who first settled on the banks of the Kennebec River, which runs through Skowhegan.

Neither side is budging in the debate, which in the last year has turned ugly with charges of racism, insults and intimidation.

While the school still says “Home of the Skowhegan Indians” on its sign, sports uniforms don’t have the word Indians on them and haven’t for years.

During one of the public meetings leading up to the school board vote, senior class president Jasmine Gordon said restrictions had been imposed on use of the word “Indians” on apparel used by sports teams at the high school, including headbands ordered for the basketball team last year that said “Skowhegan Indians” but were never used.

“They were told they were not allowed to wear them because they thought it was disrespectful. They couldn’t even sell them at the games,” Gordon said at the time.

Colbry said Tuesday the headbands weren’t used because they had been bought by the booster club and hadn’t been approved by the school.

“We probably would not have approved it then, and we probably would not approve it now,” he said. “It’s not consistent with board policy. They bought them before they got them approved. They were not used.”

But Gordon’s words in March echo what many connected to the school feel about the issue.

“Most of the students were upset that they were considering changing the name, because we’ve been Indians ever since we started school, and we feel like we’re kind of honoring our heritage, and people are trying to take it away when all we want to do is try and represent them in a positive way, never in a negative way.”

But Smith sees it differently.

“Would it be honorable to name a school mascot ‘The Jews’?” she asked in the letter to the editor. “Could we have memorabilia for the sporting events depicting gas chambers and concentration camps? Could we tell offended Jews that they should get over it because we know a Jew who is fine with it?”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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Twitter: @Doug_Harlow