As we celebrate November as Native American Indian Heritage Month in the United States, the New York State Education Department has made a huge announcement. James N. Baldwin, a Senior Deputy Commissioner with NYSED, recently sent out a memo stating that school districts in New York are not permitted to use Native American mascots anymore. The memo starts off,

The State Education Department (SED) wishes to ensure school districts’ knowledge of a recent legal decision and their concomitant need to ensure that district mascots, team names, and logos are non-discriminatory.

The letter goes on to say that the NYSED has long opposed the use of Native American mascots,

In 2001, former Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills issued a memorandum 'conclud[ing] that the use of Native American symbols or depictions as mascots can become a barrier to building a safe and nurturing school community and improving academic achievement for all students.'

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While many school districts did respect Mills' directive, others did not. Recently, one of the school districts that didn't replace its Native American mascot, Cambridge Central School District, initially voted to change its mascot, then reneged. Community members appealed the change to the Commissioner of Education under Education Law § 310. The Commissioner decided that Cambridge needed to replace the mascot. The district then appealed the commissioner's decision. On June 22, 2022, the New York State Supreme Court upheld the commissioner's decision.

Thus, the court’s decision establishes that public school districts are prohibited from utilizing Native American mascots. Arguments that community members support the use of such imagery or that it is “respectful” to Native Americans are no longer tenable.

 

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With the court's recent decision, all districts, that haven't already, must replace their Native American mascots. The letter states that any districts or schools that are not currently in compliance, must immediately come into compliance. If a school district chooses to disregard the directive, it could lose its state funding,

Should a district fail to affirmatively commit to replacing its Native American team name, logo, and/or imagery by the end of the 2022-23 school year, it may be in willful violation of the Dignity Act. The penalties for such a violation include the removal of school officers and the withholding of State Aid.

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