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Lancaster school officials under pressure to make a decision on nickname

As the Lancaster community becomes more divided over whether the school district’s nickname should remain the “Redskins,” school leaders are under increasing pressure to make a decision soon about whether to phase the name out completely.

Parents say children who play on the school’s athletic teams are being put in the middle of the ugly debate and could suffer the consequences.

“It’s pitting parents against parents, and pitting kids against kids,” parent Amy Napieralski said at this week’s School Board meeting. Napieralski has two sons, a freshman and a senior, who play on the varsity lacrosse team and told the board she’s “uncomfortable with my children having to wear a racial slur on their jerseys. ... I really have a hard time with this.”

She and others urged board members to make up their minds soon about how the district will proceed.

“We can’t keep letting this fester,” she said. “It’s starting to tear this community apart and brings way too much negativity into this community.”

Several parents raised concerns about the debate’s impact on their children after the Akron and Lake Shore school districts last week announced they would boycott upcoming lacrosse games against Lancaster. Those districts both have many Native American students on their teams and district officials said they find the “Redskins” nickname offensive.

“Certainly, parents have heightened our awareness. We are looking at weighing that seriously,” Lancaster School Superintendent Michael J. Vallely said Tuesday. “The board has to consider the impact of this on the sports teams. I have had no other notifications from other districts, but I could imagine other ramifications from other districts.”

Lancaster district officials previously indicated they would not make a decision on the issue before the start of the 2015-16 school year. Vallely and Board President Kenneth Graber have said they do not favor a hasty decision.

“The process used to determine a prom queen should not be used to determine a civil rights issue,” Vallely said.

Monday night’s School Board meeting drew at least 120 people, with both pro-“Redskins” and anti-“Redskins” sentiment expressed by speakers for three hours.

Lancaster is one of just three school districts in the state still using the “Redskins” nickname. It has been distancing itself from the nickname, and has not ordered school-funded sports uniforms bearing any “Redskins” reference for the last five years.

But the district is still facing criticism. Players and booster clubs often elect to have the moniker put on the jerseys at their own expense. That is the case with the new boys’ lacrosse uniforms, which bear the “Redskins” name on the front of the jersey, and mascot logo on the shorts.

Some residents have called on the district and board to put the issue to a public vote. While such a move is possible, it seems unlikely. Vallely said he would not recommend that option. “The reality is the Board of Education should not abdicate its authority,” he said.

Graber agreed. “We’re elected officials and supposed to make decisions,” he said, citing board decisions on past controversial issues such as redistricting and closing the Central Avenue School.

The nickname controversy comes at a thorny time for the district, with school board elections and a budget vote just a couple of months away. The district would likely be hesitant to put the mascot issue on the May 19 ballot at the same time it wants to secure voter approval for the district’s budget proposition and a nearly $60 million capital project.

Already, one pro-“Redskin” organizer and former School Board member, Brenda Christopher, has announced her candidacy for the school board, which will have two seats open.

At Monday’s meeting, resident Chris Brown expressed concerns about the impact the divisive debate is having on the community. He cited an 1986 incident in the Howard Beach section of Brooklyn, in which an African-American was hit by a car while being chased by a mob of white youths who had beaten him and his friends. “You don’t need a hate crime like Howard Beach to make our students targets,” Brown said. “If this issue remains, I think there will be repercussions. I can envision ‘Lancaster racist’ signs.”

Many residents – even ardent “Redskins” supporters who spoke passionately about keeping the mascot – urged the board to make a decision sooner rather than later.

Graber said the board will review notes from Monday’s meeting, along with a pile of letters submitted by the pro-“Redskins” group.

“Right now, we understand the passions on both sides,” Graber said.“We’re not going to change our time schedule” because of community factions nudging the board, he added.

However, Graber did say that if the board felt students faced physical danger, “I am sure we would act sooner,” he said. “It’s verbal (right now). Maybe it’s getting a little hot under the collar.”

Al Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca Nation representative appointed to address the mascot issue, was candid. “The people who want to keep this name, you really don’t understand the hurt,” he said. “It is dead wrong. And I’m telling you it is not an honor. We are not honored by you continuing this mascot.”