EVAN LAWRENCE Special to The Post-Star
CAMBRIDGE — Two members of the Cambridge school board sparred Thursday evening over a presentation at last month’s meeting by Andre Billeaudeaux, the executive director of the Native American Guardian’s Association.
At the board’s August meeting, Billeaudeaux introduced himself as a social scientist and cited a study purporting to show that students at a school in Virginia were harmed by efforts to remove the school’s Native American mascot, as compared to students at a similar school where there were no such efforts. Billeaudeaux said his “mentor” in defending Native-themed mascots is renowned social psychologist Phil Zimbardo, a professor emeritus at Stanford University.
School board member Neil Gifford said his review of Billeaudeaux’s credentials did not support Billeaudeaux’s claims. He found no indication online that Billeaudeaux holds any advanced degrees, and Billeaudeaux had contributed to only one peer-reviewed published paper, in 2004. When contacted, Gifford said, Zimbardo denied being Billeaudeaux’s mentor and accused Billeaudeaux of “deliberately weaponizing psychology” to defend Native-themed mascots.
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Billeaudeaux claims 2% Native ancestry but is not an enrolled member of any recognized tribe. He was accompanied in August by two members of the Navajo Nation, who said they like Native mascots. Gifford contacted the National Congress of American Indians, which has opposed Native-themed mascots since 1968. In its reply, the NCAI said it is the only group that officially represents all 573 federally recognized tribes, and NAGA has no authority to represent Native Americans.
Gifford said he tried to read the study Billeaudeaux cited, but the link on the NAGA website was broken and he could not find it elsewhere.
“Presenting false credibility hurts our decision-making process,” Gifford said.
School board member Dillon Honyoust, who supports keeping the Cambridge Indian, said it was “unfair” to criticize Billeaudeaux when he wasn’t present to defend himself. The study Billeaudeaux cited was used in two court cases to resist efforts to remove Native mascots, Honyoust said.
The NAGA members were in the area collecting oral histories and came to the board meeting to “share their opinions,” Honyoust said. “It’s unacceptable to keep people from speaking because what they’re saying doesn’t align with your views,” he told Gifford.
Gifford said he defends everyone’s right to speak but was opposed to the introduction of questionable information. The board has passed a resolution that would allow it to appeal the ruling that the school must discontinue the Indian, but has not acted on it yet, Gifford said.
“New information is still influencing us,” Gifford said.
Gifford’s comments on Billeaudeaux’s background were supported by resident Rachel Costello, who spoke during the public comment period. Costello also contacted Zimbardo. Zimbardo said it is “not acceptable to use mascots that mock racial and ethnic groups,” and that there is no research showing that students are harmed by replacing such mascots.
“He totally misrepresents my stand,” Zimbardo said.
Although Billeaudeaux was one of his undergraduate students, Zimbardo denied being his current mentor.
“I literally have no memory of him,” Zimbardo said.
Board president Shay Price said the board’s legal team submitted a review of the board’s legal options to keep the mascot earlier that day. He would send it to the other board members on Friday.
- Drama Club members Carol Boehlke and Adeline Record asked the board to wait a year before bringing the drama club back from Hubbard Hall, where it has been meeting for several years. The students said they preferred Hubbard Hall’s theater spaces and appreciated the help they received from Hubbard Hall’s staff. Earlier in the meeting, the board approved extending its contract with Hubbard Hall for the 2022-2023 school year.
- School Superintendent Douglas Silvernell said the school’s building committee looked at improving or replacing the school’s auditorium as one of a number of capital projects on the school’s wish list. In its draft report, the committee said a new auditorium would cost $9 million to $10 million, all of which would fall on district taxpayers. There was also the question of where a new auditorium would go on the school’s campus. Improving the existing auditorium, however, would qualify for state aid. Other priorities are creating rooms for career-technical education, agriculture, and shop classes, redesigning classrooms, and improving facilities for the arts programs, Silvernell said. Replacing the athletic fields with artificial turf was also discussed. The building committee wants to hold a referendum on $8 million to $10 million in capital projects in March to keep state building aid coming into the district, Silvernell said. “Eight to 10 million won’t cover all those things,” so the committee will have to choose which projects to present first and hold the others for five to 10 years, he said.
- The board created a director of pupil services/associate elementary principal position for the 2022-23 school year and appointed Darlene King as an interim. King, an experienced educator, will receive a per diem salary of $550. Silvernell said since the school year has already started, he didn’t want classroom teachers competing for the position, and King was available.