After months of debate in the community on whether to drop the “Rebels” moniker due to concerns over potential ties to the Confederacy, Southwestern Jefferson County Consolidated School Corporation Superintendent Jeff Bates announced on Monday the name will stay — at least for now.

Former Southwestern student Julie Patterson and a handful of other local activists started a campaign called “Retire the Rebel” to change the name in June, amid social unrest related to racism and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans this year. The group started a Facebook page and a petition that collected more than 2,000 signatures that they presented to the board at a July 13 meeting.

At a Board of School Trustees meeting Monday night, board president Rick Stockdale read a statement on behalf of Bates — who was attending virtually on quarantine — so that audiences could clearly hear the message.

Bates’ statement noted the origins of the school district in 1960, when Saluda and Hanover schools consolidated to form one school corporation in the southwest region of Jefferson County. Students voted to adopt the name “Rebels” over other options based to their opposition to consolidation, his statement said.

Bates then acknowledged the confederate imagery seen throughout the years through the Colonel Reb logo, battle flags flown at games and a mural of two Confederate soldiers in the high school wrestling room that he had painted over during the summer.

“Throughout the history of Southwestern Schools, many images and icons have been used as mascots and/or representations of the Rebels. Unfortunately, at times, symbols and depictions of Confederate Civil War soldiers and the Confederate battle flag have been used for these purposes,” Bates said.

While these depictions may have, at some point in history, been accepted as okay, that is no longer the case. In recent years, the current Southwestern administration has taken the initiative to remove these icons from being associated with our school system. While we cannot change the past, we can ensure that the symbols, which many consider racist, to have no place in our schools.”

A school poll sent out to district stakeholders in August supported keeping the Rebels name, with 81.5% of 1,174 respondents saying they either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Southwestern should keep the name ‘Rebels.’ ” Another 11.7% either disagreed or strongly disagreed with keeping the name, Bates said.

In addition, 74.4% said would not support a name change, 89.4% said they felt the district was welcoming to all regardless of race while 18% said they associated the Rebel name with the Confederacy.

Southwestern also received numerous phone calls, emails and other communications that were overwhelming supportive of keeping the school’s name and colors, Bates said.

“Because of the aforementioned information, it is the intent of the Southwestern Jefferson County Consolidated School Corporation to remain the Southwestern Rebels and put an end to the discussion of this issue,” Bates’ statement read.

A few minutes before the statement was read, Patterson and another Retire the Rebel member, Jill Koren, used the audience participation period to ask for more cooperation from the board and presented them a copy of a petition with comments from members of the community.

Patterson said she was aware of six county residents and four Southwestern graduates who had emailed the board about the Rebels issue and gotten no response, except for one who got a response after resending his email and expressing disappointment that he was not answered. She added that she herself had sent the board multiple emails with no response, and wanted to know the best way of reaching them to talk about the issue.

Stockdale replied that he would acknowledge he received those emails going forward, although he may not always have the time to engage in a full conversation.

After Patterson and Koren spoke, “Rebel” supporter Steve Rowlett spoke to distance his cause from Confederate imagery and make his final stance known. Rowlett manages a Facebook pages started in favor of keeping the name and has been an outspoken opponent of changing it.

In the case of a woman who pulled into the elementary school parking lot waving a Confederate battle flag during the July meeting, Rowlett said he spoke with the woman and asked her to take it away.

“This is never been a mascot issue. Southwestern doesn’t have a mascot … it is a name … I represent a large number of people. You all know how they felt; I submitted that to you for them,” Rowlett said to trustees.

Koren and Patterson said Tuesday that their fight wasn’t over following the district’s decision to keep the name. Koren said her group will continue researching the school’s history to help foster better community conversations in the near future.

She also said that while the school’s historic reasoning for the name may be correct, that should also be viewed in the context of integration in the early 1960s and cultural attitudes following the Brown v. The Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that found segregation in schools unconstitutional.

“I think what you saw last night was white supremacy in action. It looks very polite — it can, anyway,” Koren said. “… if you look at the timeline, it’s just really hard to imagine that this had nothing to do with it.”

Patterson on Tuesday said a major priority going forward would be shifting conversations from social media to meetings and settings out in the community.

The daughter of former Madison Consolidated Schools Superintendent Tom Patterson, Patterson attended Southwestern up until junior high in 1990, when her family began moving around the state for her father’s different jobs in education. She graduated from Muncie Central High School in 1997 and was a school teacher in New Orleans for 17 years before moving back to the area in 2018.

Now a stay-at-home mother, Patterson said some of her best childhood memories were at Southwestern and that she wanted to send her children there, but not until after a name change. She fostered a daughter last year who wanted to attend, but Patterson said she and members of the child’s care team felt more comfortable sending her to Madison.

Patterson added on Tuesday that while she assumes the district had the best of intentions in making the decision, a portion of respondents to the school survey still said they felt the district was not welcoming to everyone regardless of race, and the school should be more considerate of that minority.

“My big question here to them now is ‘How many people do you need to tell you [that they don’t feel welcome]?’ I get that you’re doing things well for the majority, but you’re not doing things well for me. Don’t I matter? And that’s what I think we’re trying to get them to understand,” Patterson said. “We’re not saying you are horrible, we’re not saying you do everything wrong, we don’t believe that at all.”

Other high schools across the country have changed or proposed changing the “Rebel” name and mascot recently, such as Parkwood High School in Monroe, North Carolina and Franklin High School in Franklin, Tennessee in July. Patterson said the school should more closely consider what the name means in current times if they also want to grow enrollment going forward and market the school as a place where all are safe and welcome.

Bates said on Wednesday that although the school consulted people on both sides, it ultimately wanted its constituents to make the final decision.

“Those are the people that have a say and should have a say in what goes on,” he said.

His administration has continued efforts from over the years to phase out Confederate imagery, like discontinuing the Colonel Reb logo and mascot costume and not allowing battle flags at sporting events. Any other display of Confederate imagery, like a Colonel logo showing up on a sporting event sign, would be a result of something “slipping through the cracks,” he said.

Regarding the 10% of survey respondents who said they didn’t feel the district was welcoming to everyone, Bates said “I would love for it to be 100%, but I don’t think even changing the name would make it 100%.”