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Lancaster students returning to school after walkout over mascot

Several hundred Lancaster students bolted from the high school and middle school Thursday morning and marched through the community to protest the district’s dropping of the Redskins nickname and mascot.

They left shortly after classes began about 7:30 a.m., and marched to the school administration building, the middle school and back to the administration building before returning to the high school. The protesters chanted “Let’s Go, Redskins” when they stopped at the various buildings.

Some students carried signs objecting to the school board’s unanimous decision Monday to drop the name.

One sign said “Redskins forever.”

Another read: “School board speaks with forked tongue.”

On the street in front of the school, several drivers honked their horns and at least one woman rolled down her window and yelled “Go, Redskins.”

A district spokeswoman said that reports that the students were locked out were not accurate.

“The students who left the school property began arriving back to the building one minute before the bell would ring to change periods,” she wrote in a statement. “In an effort to allow the protesters to come in to the building in an orderly fashion, and so that attendance could be documented, the high school called a shelter in place. Some students came into the building while others decided to stay out. Classes then resumed classes as usual.”

By 10:45 a.m., there were only about 50 students still protesting outside the high school.

Several were seen going into the school but then quickly came back out to the crowd.

Lancaster police and fire departments were at the scene throughout the morning to ensure student safety as the groups of students merged in the village, with protesters mostly numbering about 200 – though police said it had swelled at points to as many as 500 and various groups of protesters split off and went to different areas of the village.

School officials said about 200 high school students and 100 middle school students participated in the walkout.

Lancaster Police Capt. William Karn Jr. said the protest remained peaceful and said the students had not done anything illegal. “They’ve done nothing wrong,” Karn said. “What the School District chooses to do with them is another matter.”

“They’re expressing their First Amendment rights. It’s not out of control,” Karn said. “They’re protesting and doing their thing, expressing their opinion. Obviously, they are kids and are boisterous.”

The primary concern for police was the protestors’ safety. “Our main concern is the safety of these kids,” Karn said, noting that some side streets running off Central Avenue had to be temporarily closed to allow the protesting students to move through.

The traffic bottlenecks, particularly at Walden and Central, inconvenienced many drivers who were late to work because of the protest.

Superintendent Michael J. Vallely issued a statement about the protest.

“We recognize the students’ constitutional right to free speech and assembly,” Vallely said. “... At the same time the students are aware that we have a “Code of Conduct” that articulates expectations for attendance. Many of the original protesters entered school before their first period classes, while those who chose to continue their rally will be treated with the same consequences as any other “Code of Conduct” attendance policy violation.”

The superintendent added, “We realize that traditions are sometimes hard to leave behind, but we do need to rethink traditions when they have become hurtful and perceived as disrespectful of others, even unintentionally. Today and throughout this process, we will find teachable moments in the way in which our students, our faculty, our staff, and our community conduct themselves.”

School Board President Kenneth Graber was surprised that the protest occurred. “Most of the people in the community do not think this way,” Graber said this morning. “I think a majority of people are probably upset this even happened. This, in no way, honors the spirit of the district or the community.”

Graber was pleased that no one has gotten hurt. “Nobody got physically harmed, which is what we were afraid of,” he said.

But clearly, Graber was disappointed by the behavior. “For 37 years, I sent people to prison, and they took it much more graciously,” said Graber, recently retired as a 31-year administrative law judge and served six years on the state board of parole. “They understood what was going on and accepted it.”

It’s not yet known how the district will handle the protesting students. But Graber said that if they violated the student code of conduct, “it will be dealt with.” “And, if they did anything illegal, I would hope the police would act appropriately,” he said.

Wade Webster, a senior, said the student body doesn’t want the name retired. “Everyone just wants to keep the name,” he said.

But earlier, some students representing the student government said they wanted to move on from the divisive communitywide debate and emphasize the positive things going on at the school.

Webster said those students were “feeling pressured.”

The School Board voted unanimously Monday at a special meeting to drop the controversial nickname and mascot effective immediately. The action 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 a racial slur.

At today’s protest, student Kaly Foss said she has never heard the Redskins name used as a slur.

“To think that high school kids are truly using it as a slur, it’s not that at all," she said.

“We are graduating without a name. I promise you, once a Redskin, always a Redskin.”

A group of students had gathered outside the school before classes started. They were joined by some teachers and alumni.

At about 7:50 a.m., hundreds of students ran from the school and then walked en masse down Forton Drive, toward the village center and the various school buildings.

The protesters returned to the high school about 10 a.m. but found that the school was locked to them.

The protesting students then walked around the high school, chanting “Go Redskins.” But after walking around the school, they quieted down and some were seen leaving the area.

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.

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.