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A Montgomery County parent still pushes for schools to ban the ‘R-word’

Jared Hautamaki, a Montgomery County dad who is part of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
5 min

Jared Hautamaki still spots the hats and jerseys bearing the Washington football team’s old moniker as he drops his children off at school.

About eight years ago, he tried to get Montgomery County Public Schools to ban students and staff from wearing attire with the name or logo of sports teams with Native American mascots, including clothing that featured the former name, which some have called the “R-word,” of Washington’s NFL team. But the Montgomery County Board of Education declined.

Since then, the NFL team has rebranded as the Washington Commanders and cast off its old name. But Montgomery County Public Schools — which is Maryland’s largest district with roughly 160,000 students — hasn’t formally changed its policy to ban attire bearing Native American mascots.

“For as progressive as Montgomery County likes to make itself out to be, it can be certainly close-minded on a lot of issues, and this is one of them,” said Hautamaki, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Hautamaki originally made a request in 2015, after seeing the principal of his oldest son’s elementary school in Silver Spring wearing a shirt that bore the former team name on the sleeve. And there was more memorabilia scattered across the elementary school’s bulletin boards and within classrooms.

Should the ‘R-word’ be banned on attire at schools? One parent thinks so.

He made a petition, spoke in front of the school board and pointed out that the school system already banned Native American mascots in 2001. He argued that the clothing violated the school system’s dress code at the time, since it stipulated clothing that “offends others” is inappropriate, and the dictionary calls the R-word offensive. Hautamaki filed a formal complaint, but the school board did not institute a policy change, even as a private school in the county announced that it would ban the use of the R-word on campus.

Members of the county school board wrote in 2016 that Hautamaki’s request would require a broader systemwide policy shift that couldn’t be resolved through its complaint and appeal process. They added, “This decision is not intended to reflect upon the merits of Mr. Hautamaki’s arguments regarding the nature of the name of the Washington NFL team, or the use of the images of Native Americans as sports mascots.”

“They could have said, ‘You know what? You’re right. This is offensive; this is teaching kids the wrong thing,’” Hautamaki, 46, said. “But they didn’t. They said I was seeking a quasi-legislative change through a quasi-judicial process.”

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Research shows that Native mascots are directly harmful to Native American students in terms of psychological well-being, said Tyler Jimenez, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

“There’s been research findings that even very briefly viewing these types of mascots lead Native students to report lower levels of self-esteem and community esteem,” which is how they view their cultural group, Jimenez said. The R-word “goes even above and beyond,” since it’s a dictionary-defined slur, he added.

In Montgomery County, roughly 0.2 percent — fewer than 400 students — identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native, according to the school system’s demographics.

The images have indirect impact on Native students as well, Jimenez said. Similar research showed images of Native-themed mascots and stereotypical media portrayals of Native Americans to non-Native students and found that even briefly after being exposed to these images, those students exhibited more prejudicial or stereotypical thinking toward Native Americans.

The Commanders team no longer manufactures or sells any apparel with the former name and hasn’t for years. “Having just marked one year as Commanders, we look forward to fans continuing to embrace the name, and we understand for many fans there is still a strong attachment to our previous moniker,” a Commanders spokesman said.

After the Commanders dropped its old name in 2020, Hautamaki contacted the Montgomery school system again to ask if it would consider a policy change, but he didn’t get a response. He contacted them again this year, after the school system announced that it would toughen penalties for students after a spate of antisemitic incidents.

A timeline of the Washington Football Team name change debate

The school system’s ombudsperson — Ryvell Fitzpatrick — told Hautamaki that students wearing clothing depicting Native mascots would not constitute a discipline issue, but it is “against the culture of respect at MCPS,” according to a copy of an email Hautamaki shared with The Washington Post. Fitzpatrick added that the students would be addressed and that would typically mean “asking the student to turn their shirt inside out or to wait in the office until a parent brings alternate clothing.”

“When parents have raised concerns about the use of the Washington Commander’s former name and logo, our staff has worked to respond in a manner that is consistent with our core values of equity and respect, while also adhering to our obligation as a public school district to safeguard the right to free expression enjoyed by our school community,” schools spokeswoman Jessica Baxter said in a statement.

Hautamaki said the response wasn’t as strong to the school system’s responses to hateful incidents.

“You can’t take that step on hate speech for one group and not the others,” he said.