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Vote to change Columbus school name sparks controversy in Medford

Police in Medford are conducting patrols by school committee members’ houses after the committee’s vote last week to rename the Columbus Elementary School was harshly criticized on social media and by an Italian-American organization.

Paul Ruseau, vice chairperson of the school committee, said police have been driving by his house several times a day after the committee voted 6-1 on June 15 to rename the school that honored the Christopher Columbus.

The police patrols started after a resident posted the names and addresses of committee members on Facebook and urged residents to hold rallies at their homes. This prompted a committee member to notify police, Ruseau said.

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On Facebook, one writer accused the school committee of “tearing this city apart,” while another said the proposal was like “the communists trying to take over.”

Meanwhile, residents in favor of keeping the Columbus name created a Facebook page called “Medford United,” with the goal of protecting the city from progressive activist groups like “Our Revolution, and other radical organizations.”

Police Lieutenant Paul Covinoconfirmed that the department is conducting the patrols, but said police are not investigating the comments posted to social media.

Ruseau said the angry backlash is unsettling.

“This is the first time I’ve had to lock my doors at night and keep a light on.” he said. “It’s not okay. It’s not what elected officials should have to go through to serve the community.”

Ruseau and two other members proposed the resolution to change the name. A committee will be formed to come up with a new name for the school by February. The name would finalized by July 1, 2021, he said.

The name change comes amid a nationwide movement to drop offensive names, statues and other cultural symbols associated with slavery. A statue of Columbus in Boston was beheaded by protesters last month.

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Columbus, the Italian explorer who sailed to the Americas on behalf of Spain, is widely viewed as having oppressed native peoples. William Fowler, distinguished professor emeritus of history at Northeastern University, said Columbus led an “invasion” which killed millions of native people.

Still, Columbus is a source of pride for Italian-Americans, many of whom say the explorer’s legacy has been distorted. According to Fowler, Italians began to idolize Columbus as more immigrated to America in the 1800s.

“We all need heroes don’t we?” he said. “It builds identity, it builds honor and trust. Christopher Columbus was quite logically taken as the Italian hero but that’s when we didn’t know that much about him and sometimes heroes don’t turn out to be heroes.”

The Italian American Alliance of Boston issued a statement criticizing the Medford School Committee for falsely linking Columbus to genocide and enslaving native people.

“Despite the recent accusations – Columbus never committed genocide! That is unless you choose to believe that the unintentional clash of microbes is genocide,” the statement said. “The worst slander is to accuse Columbus of institutionalizing slavery. In fact, Columbus never owned a slave, although slavery was in fashion during his lifetime.”

In an interview, Frank Mazzaglia, the chairman of the alliance board, said renaming the Medford school is “an insult” driven more by current political debate over racial equity than history.

“I think part of it is the mood of the moment,” he said.

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