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Lancaster School Board votes to retire ‘Redskins’ name, mascot

The Lancaster School District is no longer the home of the mighty Redskins.

After a packed special School Board meeting Monday night, the controversial nickname and mascot were officially dropped by the board in a unanimous vote, effective immediately.

The action, which came much sooner than expected, put a formal end to a nearly 70-year tradition that was beloved by many in the community and also detested by Native Americans and others who viewed it as an offensive racial slur.

Despite the board’s decision, it was clear that the bitterness and resentment that have grown in the community over the issue in the last six months would not fade anytime soon.

Even before the board voted on a detailed resolution crafted by Superintendent Michael J. Vallely and read by Board President Kenneth Graber, the crowd of at least 500 people began shouting and booing the board.

“Let’s go, Redskins. Let’s go,” they chanted.

Some Redskins supporters yelled out for the board to be replaced and called the board and Vallely unflattering names. Some stood up and turned their backs to the board as members spoke.

Board members spoke of receiving numerous threats from pro-Redskins people, saying they had gone as far as threatening to vote them out of office and vote down the district’s budget in May as well as a nearly $60 million capital project the district is preparing.

But in the end, the board had the final say, and once the vote was taken, many in the crowd erupted with applause. A handful of Native Americans went up to Vallely and thanked him for doing the right thing and being strong.

“We took it step by step,” said Al Parker, a spokesman for the Tonawanda Seneca Nation. “They’re going in the right direction. It’s a big step. Having three districts boycott games boosted things along. We did not approach them, but it was kind of a shot in the arm. Bang, bang, bang.”

The board ran the 45-minute meeting, despite spurts of jeers from angry pro-Redskins supporters.

By the end of the emotionally charged session, Vallely seemed relieved. He held firm that there is no timetable for a new mascot and team name to be selected. Vallely also said there is no truth to a rumored new name of Redhawks. “We purposely did not set a time frame on a new mascot,” he said, noting that he will soon speak with the student leadership academy to begin the process of exploring a new school mascot. No decision will be made this school year.

“It will be a student-initiated process,” Vallely said.

Whatever is recommended by the students will be proposed for board approval. The board said it is also looking for a plan from the student body to respectfully retire the mascot.

“The district has given this resolution careful consideration as we recognize traditions are often hard to leave behind,” Vallely said. “However, we need to rethink traditions when they become hurtful and perceived as disrespectful toward others, even unintentionally.”

Vallely and others said it would provide an opportunity for the school community to begin a new tradition for future generations.

A 1948 graduate who played football for Lancaster was disappointed over the board’s action. “I feel we have had our right to decide taken away from us,” said Dick Young. Like others, he said the nickname was a sign of honor.

Board member Wendy Buchert said she felt that “no good can come from students being in the middle of this controversy.”

That the budget was being threatened “is a shame,” she said. “The only ones who will benefit from the budget and capital project is the children,” she said.

As the board met behind closed doors ahead of the special meeting Monday night, a side parking lot to the William Street School filled with pro-Redskins supporters. A pickup truck displayed a handmade sign that read: “Politicians & Diapers Should be Changed Often & For The Same Reason.”

The Lancaster debate mirrors the national issue of whether the NFL’s Washington Redskins should keep its name. Many find the name offensive, but supporters have held it up as a symbol of community pride and tradition never meant to offend anyone.

Lancaster has gradually been distancing itself from the nickname, with the district not purchasing school uniforms with the name – unless students have decided to do that on their own. The new football scoreboard lacks any reference to a team name, and last fall marked the first time that a mascot did not appear at sporting events.

But in recent weeks, the district found itself under increasing pressure to make a decision. Up until last Friday, though, the school administration said it would not likely make any type of decision until after the start of the 2015-16 school year.

With just 0.2 percent of its student population Native American, Lancaster was one of only three districts in New York State still using the Redskins nickname. The district has nearly 6,000 students.

Within a week, three local school districts – Akron, Lake Shore and Niagara Wheatfield, all of which have Native American students – announced boycotts of upcoming nonleague lacrosse games.

email: bobrien@buffnews.com and krobinson@buffnews.com.