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Portland schools end support for pregame bonfire tradition

By Gillian Graham, 11/21/12
Booster clubs have held the spirit rallies, but the district says there’s a risk of injury and property damage.

PORTLAND – A longtime tradition to stoke school spirit in the city has been extinguished.

Portland Public Schools will no longer support bonfires organized by athletic booster groups to rally team spirit before games because of concerns about safety and property damage.

The fires were traditionally held on the night before the annual Thanksgiving Day football game between Portland and Deering high schools.

The 101st Turkey Day Game will be played at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

Deering held its bonfires on an athletic field at the school, while Portland High’s bonfires were held in an open space at Deering Oaks.

School officials said the decision to discontinue the fires was made because of the risk of injury and property damage.

The schools were notified of the decision last year, and Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk sent out a memo last week reinforcing the school district’s position.

“While Portland Public Schools generally supports community events and celebrations, we must consider individual’s safety and care of community property first and foremost,” Caulk wrote in the memo Nov. 16 to principals and athletic directors:

“Due to the inherent risks and costs of bonfires, we will no longer support the organizing of bonfires for the district.”

In the statement, Caulk said the school department’s insurance provider “strongly discourages” bonfires because of their risk for personal injury and property damage.

City workers have reported property damage in the past, though Caulk did not provide details in his memo.

School athletic fields are maintained by the city.

City Manager Mark Rees said the city was not involved in the school department’s discussions about ending the bonfires, but supports the decision.

In years past, bonfires were common at high schools across the state to drum up school spirit before games against rival schools.

“We have learned through conversations with other school districts that very few schools still hold bonfires,” Caulk said in the memo.

Officers of athletic booster groups for Portland and Deering could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Mel Craig, athletic administrator at Deering High, said she has heard from other school employees that the field was damaged by bonfires, but she did not have details.

She said school officials are mindful that people may be upset by the decision to end bonfires.

“Portland has enjoyed a very rich tradition,” she said. “Anytime things change, some people are going to be disappointed by it.”

Mike Connolly, co-curricular director for Portland High, said he hasn’t heard any feedback about the decision from teachers, parents or students.

“I think people understand the liability side of the bonfire, but they also appreciate the tradition,” he said.

“There’s disappointment, but on some level, acceptance.”

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