Meet the 'Criminals' of Yuma High School

Crook, gangster, hooligan. There are a lot of ways to describe a criminal.

But none of those would apply to students at one Arizona high school, which is proud of the fact they are all Criminals.

"It's the only mascot that's a criminal, and it's pretty cool," said Jose Valasquez, a Yuma High School senior.

"It really goes along well with our community and Yuma," said Jessica Grove, a Yuma High School senior.

Each and every one of these students is a Criminal, straight 'A' student or not.

A Yuma High School Criminal.

Their mascot, a Criminal, comes from the city's past, when Arizona was just a territory.

"The school was established in 1909 and about 1911, we had a fire and the school burned down," said Bob Chouinard, the Yuma High School principal.

"There was a need and the prison was empty and for three years from 1910, the second year of Yuma High School's existence, to the beginning of the '13-'14 school year, they were housed in the territorial prison," said Eric Patten, the Director of Communications for Yuma Union High School District.

That's right. Instead of a school, students went to class inside the Yuma Territorial Prison which was empty of prisoners.

"We were producing criminals before Arizona ever became the 48th state," said Curt Weber, Yuma High School's football coach and a history teacher.

That, and a football game, sealed the "Criminals" fate.

"The Criminals at the time, just Yuma Union High School at the time, had gone over to play Phoenix Union High School in a game they perceived as significant underdogs. They won the game and players from the Phoenix Union team referred to them as stealing the game like a bunch of criminals," Patten said.

A few years later, it was official.

"The Criminals nick name really came about board approved in 1917," Patten said.

And ever since, Yuma Union High School is the place to be on Friday nights as police squad car sirens and a prison breakout alarm announce the Criminals' arrival.

"At the very beginning of each football game, we have our football team line up behind the police car so the police car turns on its lights and sirens and he goes out on the football field, does a little 'S' loop and the football team follows the police car in," Chouinard said. "The whole crowd starts roaring and clapping and we have this old siren from the prison, too. And we set that off, too. And it makes this loud horn noise. It gets the crowd pumped up and ready for the football game."

Weber says his team and the fans get a kick out of it.

"I think the whole town wants us to win because of the history and tradition," Weber said.

Is it politically correct? Few, if any, seem worried about it here.

"In this day of political correctness, we have to answer that question all the time. It's more to the effect of, how do you get away with that?" Weber said.

"Occasionally, we'll have a parent say they are resistant to having their student attend Yuma High because they don't want them to be negatively stereotyped or labeled, but that's far and few between," Patten said. "Once a Criminal, always a Criminal."

"Even though they are called the Criminals, we still push them and push our students and make sure they are here for all the right reasons and just have a great high school experience and tie it back into the community with all of the rich history we have there," Chouinard said.

And besides, the kids love it.

"I'm honestly glad I came here and get to graduate a criminal," Grove said.

In the 2014 survey of mascot names nationwide, USA Today named the Yuma High School Criminals the second best, losing out only to the Ophelia Orphans.