Long Islanders react to the Connetquot school district suing over the state-wide mascot ban.  Credit: Newsday Studio

The Connetquot school district has filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Regents that seeks to invalidate a statewide ban on public schools from using Native American mascots, names and imagery.

The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of New York on Monday, called the ban “unconstitutional” and said the Board of Regents, which sets much of the state’s education policies, exceeded its authority.

The new rules call on districts to eliminate references to Native American names, mascots and imagery on school property by June 2025.

The issue at heart in Connetquot is the use of “Thunderbirds” as a team nickname and mascot.

First chosen by students in the 1960s, the name over the years has morphed into the popular nickname “T-Birds” and become part of the catchphrase “once a T-Bird, always a T-Bird,” according to the lawsuit.

“In Native American folklore, thunderbirds were large bird-like mythological creatures that dominated the nature and were responsible for the weather,” attorneys for the district, Adam Kleinberg and Chelsea Weisbord from Carle Place-based firm Sokoloff Stern, wrote in the complaint, citing “A Dictionary of Nature Myths” by Tamra Andrews. 

However, mythical birds and other creatures are not unique to Native American culture, nor is the thunderbird, the attorneys argued. In addition, the district’s primary logo “bears little to no resemblance to a thunderbird described in literature or depicted in artwork,” they wrote.

Also, the school logos and the mascot, which bear the school colors red and black, include no imagery of a Native American headdress or other accessories, the attorneys said.

The Connetquot suit named each of the 17 Regents members, who unanimously voted in favor of the ban in April, individually as defendants. JP O'Hare, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said Wednesday the department and the Board of Regents do not comment on pending litigation.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Connetquot school district, the school board and Jaclyn Napolitano-Furno, who is a board trustee and a parent. The district and the board had no comment Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman. Napolitano-Furno did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit also challenged the rule that prohibits district officers and employees from wearing apparel associated with a school district's retired indigenous team name, logo or mascot on school property or at school functions.

Napolitano-Furno, an alum and the mother of two children attending middle and high schools, and other members of the school community regularly wear Thunderbirds or T-Birds attire to sports games or school events to show support, the lawsuit said, and the prohibition violates their First Amendment rights. 

Connetquot is among 13 Long Island school districts affected by the ban. The 5,335-student district in Bohemia is the latest to sue, just weeks after Massapequa, Wantagh and Wyandanch school districts filed lawsuits.

In a joint lawsuit, Wantagh and Wyandanch sought to retain their decades-old Warriors team name but said they “plan to change their respective mascots and/or logos to remove any Native American-associated imagery.”

The more expansive suit filed by Massapequa included similar language as in the Connetquot complaint. Both sought a judgment to render the ban “null.”

Kleinberg and Weisbord represent all four districts in the three lawsuits. Kleinberg and Weisbord did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The Connetquot school board in a Sept. 28 meeting appointed Sokoloff Stern as special counsel to represent the board in litigation challenging the state regulation and capped the expenditures at $25,000 unless there is further board approval. 

The Connetquot school district has filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Regents that seeks to invalidate a statewide ban on public schools from using Native American mascots, names and imagery.

The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of New York on Monday, called the ban “unconstitutional” and said the Board of Regents, which sets much of the state’s education policies, exceeded its authority.

The new rules call on districts to eliminate references to Native American names, mascots and imagery on school property by June 2025.

The issue at heart in Connetquot is the use of “Thunderbirds” as a team nickname and mascot.

First chosen by students in the 1960s, the name over the years has morphed into the popular nickname “T-Birds” and become part of the catchphrase “once a T-Bird, always a T-Bird,” according to the lawsuit.

“In Native American folklore, thunderbirds were large bird-like mythological creatures that dominated the nature and were responsible for the weather,” attorneys for the district, Adam Kleinberg and Chelsea Weisbord from Carle Place-based firm Sokoloff Stern, wrote in the complaint, citing “A Dictionary of Nature Myths” by Tamra Andrews. 

However, mythical birds and other creatures are not unique to Native American culture, nor is the thunderbird, the attorneys argued. In addition, the district’s primary logo “bears little to no resemblance to a thunderbird described in literature or depicted in artwork,” they wrote.

Also, the school logos and the mascot, which bear the school colors red and black, include no imagery of a Native American headdress or other accessories, the attorneys said.

The Connetquot Thunderbird mascot at a Suffolk boys volleyball match...

The Connetquot Thunderbird mascot at a Suffolk boys volleyball match in September of last year. Credit: Dawn McCormick

The Connetquot suit named each of the 17 Regents members, who unanimously voted in favor of the ban in April, individually as defendants. JP O'Hare, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said Wednesday the department and the Board of Regents do not comment on pending litigation.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Connetquot school district, the school board and Jaclyn Napolitano-Furno, who is a board trustee and a parent. The district and the board had no comment Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman. Napolitano-Furno did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit also challenged the rule that prohibits district officers and employees from wearing apparel associated with a school district's retired indigenous team name, logo or mascot on school property or at school functions.

Napolitano-Furno, an alum and the mother of two children attending middle and high schools, and other members of the school community regularly wear Thunderbirds or T-Birds attire to sports games or school events to show support, the lawsuit said, and the prohibition violates their First Amendment rights. 

Connetquot is among 13 Long Island school districts affected by the ban. The 5,335-student district in Bohemia is the latest to sue, just weeks after Massapequa, Wantagh and Wyandanch school districts filed lawsuits.

In a joint lawsuit, Wantagh and Wyandanch sought to retain their decades-old Warriors team name but said they “plan to change their respective mascots and/or logos to remove any Native American-associated imagery.”

The more expansive suit filed by Massapequa included similar language as in the Connetquot complaint. Both sought a judgment to render the ban “null.”

Kleinberg and Weisbord represent all four districts in the three lawsuits. Kleinberg and Weisbord did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The Connetquot school board in a Sept. 28 meeting appointed Sokoloff Stern as special counsel to represent the board in litigation challenging the state regulation and capped the expenditures at $25,000 unless there is further board approval. 

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