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NEW YORK STATE

State: Upstate NY school district's Indian imagery must be gone by July

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CAMBRIDGE — It’s official: Cambridge Central School District’s Indian has to go.

In a ruling issued Monday, state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa annulled the Cambridge school board’s vote of July 8 to reinstate the name, mascot and imagery it had retired on June 17.

The board’s composition had changed between the two dates, giving the Indian supporters a 1-vote majority on the five-member board.

Rosa sided with eight parents in the district who petitioned her in August to strike down the July 8 resolution.

She agreed with them that the school board acted arbitrarily when it reversed its previous vote.

“The Commissioner has consistently invalidated actions where boards of education summarily reversed course without sufficiently explaining their reasoning,” Rosa wrote.

She noted that the resolution to retire the mascot cited several reasons to do so.

“The July 2021 resolution, however, offered no meaningful explanation as to why (the board) no longer found the information it had previously cited persuasive. ... The July 2021 resolution also failed to explain how the name and logo violated (the school’s) DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) policy in June 2021 but not a month later.”

In 2001, then-Education Commissioner Richard Mills asked local boards of education “to end the use of Native American mascots as soon as practical.” That continues to be the state Education Department’s policy, Rosa wrote.

Research since then has found that Native-themed mascots are harmful to Native Americans and, by reinforcing stereotypes and prejudice, to non-Native persons.

“Those findings remained consistent regardless of the ‘stated intent of those who support(ed) Native mascots (i.e., to ‘honor’ Native Americans),’” Rosa noted.

The New York Association of School Psychologists opposes the use of Indigenous symbols for schools and their sports teams for that reason, Rosa wrote. NYSAP also holds that such symbols could violate the state’s 2021 Dignity for All Students Act. The act prohibits creation of an environment that could cause students emotional harm.

The school’s argument that the Indian fosters respect for Native Americans “is not supported by the evidence in the record,” Rosa wrote, citing the school’s “Lil’ Indians” newspaper for the elementary school and other examples submitted by the petitioners.

Rosa extended the deadline for the school to remove the nickname and imagery to July 1, 2022. She also urged the school to abide by a proposal in the July 8 resolution to improve the school’s curriculum about Native Americans.

“Retiring the mascot is not an end in and of itself; it is a small but important part of increasing the nature and quality of Native American education,” Rosa wrote.

Rosa dismissed objections by the school’s counsel that four of the parents who filed the petition did not have children attending school in the district. The other four parents do, she wrote. Also, the two petitioners who had their affidavits notarized outside New York didn’t disqualify the other six petitioners who did, she wrote.

On the other hand, Rosa dismissed extra material and two letters submitted in September and October on the grounds that she had not given permission to do so. She also dismissed a proposed filing on behalf of the petitioners from Native American activist John Kane, who spoke at one of the school board meetings last winter.

School Superintendent Douglas Silvernell was out of the office Tuesday and not available for comment.

The Board of Education posted a statement on the school’s website:

“We are disappointed with Commissioner Rosa’s decision. The Board will be taking time to thoroughly and thoughtfully review the decision to best determine how to proceed. The board is committed to maintaining transparency throughout this process and will provide an update to the community after it determines how to proceed on this matter.”

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