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Akron and Lake Shore cancel lacrosse games with Lancaster

The little Akron school district – where one in 10 students is Native American – made a big statement Friday when it decided to boycott an upcoming lacrosse game as a stand against Lancaster’s use of the nickname “Redskins.”

In fact, it motivated another local district to do the same.

After Akron announced Friday morning that it canceled its boys varsity game with Lancaster, the Lake Shore Central School District – where 15 percent of the students are Native American – followed suit and broke off its boys and girls lacrosse games against Lancaster. All were nonleague contests.

“Everybody seems in agreement it was the right thing to do for our school district,” said Akron Superintendent Kevin Shanley.

“It was an easy decision for us,” said Lake Shore Superintendent James Przepasniak. “We feel this action is in support of the Native American community.”

The decisions by Akron and Lake Shore follow Tuesday’s heated community forum where hundreds – critics and supporters alike – turned out at Lancaster High School to express their opinions about the Redskins name and the use of a Native American mascot.

But the debate raging in Lancaster also sparked discussion among its future opponents in Akron, where a few concerned parents raised the issue with school administrators: “If we play the game, does that mean we condone the name?”

The Akron school campus on Bloomingdale Avenue is just a few miles down the road from the Tonawanda Creek Reservation, home to the Tonawanda Band of Senecas. The district of about 1,500 students is 11 percent Native American and most of the boys on its varsity lacrosse squad are as well.

Lancaster, with a student population of nearly 6,000, has about a dozen Native American students.

Over the past few days, Akron has had “productive and lengthy” discussions about boycotting the March 31 game with Lancaster, which Akron was to host. That included a meeting on Thursday with the boys lacrosse team, Athletic Director Stephen Dimitroff and the high school’s assistant principal, as well as conversations with members of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation.

“I think part of it is really educating people on what the term is and how it plays out in the Native American community,” Shanley said of the nickname. “In talking with the people from the Tonawanda Seneca Nation it became apparent that name is offensive and disparaging to the Native American population.”

Shanley, who had been keeping the School Board in the loop on the issue, made the decision late Thursday afternoon and informed Lancaster Superintendent Michael J. Vallely.

“We talked about the struggles their district is facing and the conversation that happened in our district,” Shanley said. “He was very understanding that we’re making a decision that’s best for our district and Lancaster is still in the conversation about what’s best for their district.”

Meanwhile, news of Akron’s decision began to circulate Friday in Lake Shore, where more than 200 of its 2,500 students live on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation.

A Native American student on the girls lacrosse team approached Athletic Director Daryl Besant Friday morning about joining Akron and canceling its games with Lancaster. The boys and girls varsity and junior varsity teams were scheduled for home and away games with Lancaster in early April.

Besant took the request to the superintendent, who conferred with the School Board president.

Lake Shore has a long history of educating Native American students, because of its proximity to the reservation, so staff and administrators are well aware of the biases Native Americans experience, Przepasniak said.

“When our students come to us with a concern, we make every effort to respond in an appropriate and formal manner,” Przepasniak said. “We are sensitive to their response to the Redskins nickname and we feel it is very appropriate to support our students and very appropriate to make this decision at this time.”

Representatives for Section VI high school sports did not return a call on Friday seeking comment on the significance of the cancellations and whether this boycott could potentially spread.

The Lancaster district, meanwhile, has been quietly trying to phase out the use of the nickname. Some in the community see it as a racial slur, while supporters say it’s Lancaster tradition and not meant to be offensive.

Vallely released a lengthy statement in response to Friday’s developments at Akron and Lake Shore.

One of the things that came out of Tuesday’s forum is that the community never intended for the name and mascot to be viewed as derogatory, Vallely said. At the same time, he said, the district is working to raise awareness that what Lancaster may perceive as a title of “pride and honor” is not viewed the same way by others.

“Lancaster Central School District certainly respects the diverse views of others. Specifically, students in a neighboring school district who have decided to take a stand against a mascot they, themselves, find to be offensive and derogatory in nature.

“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, and I implore their patience and understanding as we continue to educate our students and the community.”