With the threat of possibly losing $72 million in state aid — as well as the removal of school officers — the Sewanhaka Central High School District Board of Education voted on May 23 to discard Sewanhaka High School’s Indian mascot.
The board’s decision comes on the heels of the New York State Education Department’s unanimous verdict on April 18 to end the use of Native American mascots in schools.
The state regulations went into full effect at the beginning of the month, and the ban on indigenous mascots will impact a total of 11 Long Island school districts. The school board in each district must commit to removing its mascot by June 30, officials said.
After July 1, the Sewanhaka board said, using or promoting the Indian mascot would be prohibited, and the goal is to introduce a new mascot by the fall. Sewanhaka Superintendent James Grossane said the school board plans to form a committee of volunteers to aid in the mascot transition.
“I know that this is not news that will make everyone happy, but it is something that we are required to comply with,” Grossane said.
The state Board of Regents is in charge of setting education policies, as well as rules and regulations it enforces as law. Prior decisions of the state education commissioner and the Albany Supreme Court established that public schools are prohibited from using indigenous mascots.
In 2001, former commissioner Richard Mills issued a memorandum mentioning that the use of Native American symbols or depictions as mascots can “become a barrier to building a safe and nurturing school community and improving academic achievement for all students.”
Mills then called for the removal of all Native American mascots in public schools as soon as possible.
Since then, the Board of Regents and the state education department have consistently opposed the use of Native American mascots and imagery in schools.
If high schools, including Sewanhaka, fail to comply with the state’s order by June 30, 2025, they could be considered in willful violation of the Dignity For All Students Act and face penalties, including the removal of school officers and the withholding of state aid.
According to the state guidelines, the “Sewanhaka” school building name can remain — the regulation only applies to indigenous school team names, mascots, logos and any other imagery.
In light of the decision, Grossane detailed some of the changes and renovations that need to be made to Sewanhaka High School, including replacing any school uniforms adorning the term “Indian,” band uniforms that have a large embroidered Native American head, and the sports scoreboards. The district would also be forced to remove the indigenous mascot logo on the floor in the lobby and on the turf field that reads “Sewanhaka Indians,” inscribed in the school’s purple, white and gold colors, with a Native American man’s head in the center.
The state education department said legacy or memorial items and historical artifacts do not need to be removed or changed. However, these schools are encouraged to relocate them from trophy cases to areas allowing for contextualization and conversation regarding the impact these team names, mascots and logos have on indigenous people and culture.
Grossane said any historical items are going to be moved to the Sewanhaka High School library.
“There’s really nothing that needs to be changed in the Athletic Hall of Fame cases,” Grossane said. “The (Works Program Administration’s Federal Art Project) murals that are in the library that were once in the cafeteria were painted in 1937 — they remain, and there are one or two artifacts that are in our main lobby that will be relocated to the library, where they can be discussed.”
Five Sewanhaka school board members voted for the resolution, and one, Patricia Rudd, opposed it, saying that she was not against the mascot change, but rather the removal process.
“It angers me that the state education department can hold the school district as hostage and also threaten to fire officials in the school district, board of education members if they don’t comply in an expedited way,” Rudd said. “It’s going to cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money — to hold hostage $72 million plus is wrong.”
Representatives of the state education department said they would provide assistance to any school or district that is affected by the decision. State building aid is also available to help alleviate any capital expenses and any additional funding “can, and should, be sought through the school district budget or capital project processes,” as stated in the guidelines, state education officials added.
Tiffany Capers, an Elmont elementary board member and parent, attended the meeting where the resolution was adopted and commended the Sewanhaka board for its decision to remove the mascot.
“I don’t think it should be seen as much as a financial burden — what we heard from the Native American people is that it is hurtful to them,” Capers said. “Now that we are told it’s the way that it makes them feel, we should address it.”