Superintendent Michael Vallely recently said the mascot has been part of Lancaster High School’s “proud heritage” for some 60 years, but he acknowledged on Monday it had become a “symbol of ethnic stereotyping,” the Associated Press reported. High schools and universities across the country have faced the same challenge since 2013 when the Washington Redskins — facing criticism — pointed to other teams that shared its name.
But it seems the high school near Buffalo had been moving toward Monday’s decision for a while. For the past several years, it had been ordering school uniforms without the mascot’s name. Its new football scoreboard has no reference to it. And, according to the Buffalo News, last fall was the first time the mascot didn’t appear at a sporting event.
“I hope the Native American community understands that while the mascot is still in place at Lancaster High School, we have worked diligently to treat it with respect and honor, removing any stereotypical behaviors and images,” Vallely said in a statement. “I would implore their patience and understanding as we continue to educate our students and our community.”
Since “redskin” is considered a racial slur by many Native Americans, many high schools and universities have made name changes or are considering them — though there are still scores left with the name, according to MascotDB. Late last year, for example, the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board voted unanimously to remove it from Oklahoma City’s Capitol Hill High School, which had used it for 88 years, Reuters reported. Following the decision, some students refused to go to class.
As for the NFL Redskins, a Washington Post poll conducted in 2013 showed that 66 percent of Washington residents did not think the team should change its name. Despite protests, Redskins owner Dan Snyder refuses to budge.
“We will never change the name of the team,” he told USA Today in 2013. “As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”
“We’ll never change the name,” he added. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
It’s a debate that hits close to home for Lancaster High School.
This month, more than 100 people in the community attended a public forum to debate the school’s proposed name change. At the time, however, the administration said it was not prepared to make any decisions until the next school year, the Buffalo News reported. Since then, three area school districts — Akron, Lake Shore and Niagara Wheatfield, which have a number of Native American athletes — boycotted the high school’s lacrosse games.
The Lancaster Central School Board called a special hearing on Monday night to discuss the issue.
“There is no pride in having schools boycott playing our sports teams,” board member Kimberly Nowak said, the AP reported. “There is no price in winning by forfeit.”
“We must make an immediate decision to change the mascot,” one board member announced, according to WKBW-TV. “History will recognize this is a tough decision.”
Hundreds at the hearing protested the change, with some chanting: “Let’s go, Redskins! Let’s go!” Others called out, telling board members to “let the community vote.” A few turned their backs on the board members.
After the members voted to change the name, Lancaster School Board President Kenneth Graber told protesters they could “review” the board during school board elections in May — in other words, vote them out of office. Some shouted “We will!” according to news reports.
“All of these years, we’ve never used it in a negative way,” Lancaster High School senior Emily Koeppel said, according to the AP. “It was never meant to be hurtful.”
In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights urged non-Native American schools to stop using images and names that “encourage biases and prejudices that have a negative effect on contemporary Indian people.” Until Monday, Lancaster was among only a few districts in New York still using the Redskins name, the Buffalo News reported.
“Not only did the school make a powerful statement to the Native American community that they no longer wanted to use a term that is a dictionary-defined slur against native people,” Joel Barkin, a spokesman for the Oneida Indian Nation of central New York, told the AP. “But it made a statement to the kids in that school to be self-aware and have empathy and think about how the actions that you are engaging in affect other people outside of yourself.”
A student-led group will be in charge of choosing a new name and mascot, though there is no deadline for the decision.