The Wantagh and Wyandanch school districts have filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Regents in an effort to continue using the Warriors team name following a statewide ban on schools having Native American mascots, names and imagery.
The lawsuit, filed in Central Islip federal court late last week, said both schools “plan to change their respective mascots and/or logos to remove any Native American-associated imagery” but wish to retain their decades-old name.
"If the Wyandanch UFSD and Wantagh UFSD retire their Native American imagery and successfully rebrand of the Warriors name, then there is no rational reason why they should not be able to continue to use the Warriors name," the lawsuit wrote.
The new state rules called for public school systems to have agreed by June that they would comply with the ban, and then to eradicate references to Native American names, mascots and imagery on school property by June 2025.
Wantagh and Wyandanch are among 13 Long Island districts impacted. Their lawsuit comes a week after the Massapequa school district filed a more expansive federal lawsuit against the state Board of Regents.
Massapequa's lawsuit, filed in Central Islip federal court Sept. 21, seeks to invalidate the statewide ban on Native American names and imagery because the school's board of education believes it violated their constitutional rights.
Massapequa goes by the team name Chiefs.
The 17-member state Board of Regents unanimously voted in favor of the ban in April. Wantagh and Wyandanch's lawsuit named each Regents member individually as a defendant.
The chancellor of the state Board of Regents, Lester Young Jr., did not respond to a message seeking comment. A spokesman for the state Education Department, J.P. O'Hare, said, "The department does not comment on pending litigation."
The attorney representing Wantagh and Wyandanch in their joint lawsuit, Adam Kleinberg of the Carle Place-based firm Sokoloff Stern, referred questions to those districts' boards of education.
Wantagh's five-person school board released a statement Monday that said the state Education Department has granted one school district permission to continue using the Warriors. Their lawsuit identified that school system as Chenango Valley Central School District, located outside Binghamton.
The Chenango school district's mascot was not connected to Native Americans, the district said in published reports in April.
"We are simply asking for equal consideration and opportunity," they said. " … We fully believe that we can undergo a successful rebrand of the 'Warrior" nickname and will continue to stand with our community in an effort to maintain that identity."
Jarod Morris, president of the Wyandanch board of education, said in an email that the district already replaced much of its Native American imagery decades ago and should be allowed to keep its Warriors name.
"In America, we use the word 'warrior' when mentioning those who have served this country in the armed forces and even in the church world some identify as a 'warrior for the Lord,'" he said. "And so, we took this step because the state is overstepping and is going beyond its authority as outlined in law."
Wantagh and Wyandanch are sharing the cost of the lawsuit, school officials said.
Wyandanch is one of only a handful of school districts statewide with a state-appointed fiscal monitor to help with budgeting, operations and other financial areas. Morris said that "has nothing to do with this issue, in my opinion. We are in an excellent financial position …"
Financial conditions in the Wyandanch school district continue to improve, according to a recent state-required report, allowing the system to set aside millions of dollars in cash reserves to meet future needs.
The fiscal monitor's most recent annual report, published October 2022, reported that the system's bond rating increased for the second time in two years, and that instructional staff positions have been restored in all schools.
Still, complying with the ban will be costly. Removing the Native American imagery from school property and replacing swaths of team paraphernalia across all sports and programs could cost districts more than $400,000, according to an estimate by Pat Pizzarelli, the executive director of the governing body of high school sports in Nassau County. Districts are expected to pay for the necessary changes but can seek state aid for projects greater than $10,000.
Anthony Sabino, a Mineola trial attorney who teaches law at St. John's University, said the schools' lawsuit is unlikely to succeed because they must convince a judge or jury that the state Board of Regents' ban was "arbitrary and capricious."
"What that means is that there was a lack of deliberation and that there was a lack of rationality" in the state's decision-making process, Sabino said. "That's very hard mountain to climb.
The state Education Department rebuffed both school districts' separate requests to retain the Warriors name before the June deadline, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit said Wantagh asked the state in June for permission to keep the Warriors name, citing how the district planned to remove any Native American imagery from school property. The state Education Department declined the request, the district said.
The Wantagh board of education raised the possibility of a lawsuit in a June letter to the community, posted on the school district's website.
"The district must comply, or it must engage with the State in a potentially lengthy and expensive legal process," the letter states. "And while our consideration of partnering with other Long Island districts that find themselves in a similar situation might somewhat mitigate that expense, both our legal counsel and special outside counsel have indicated costs could run into the tens of thousands of dollars with a low chance for success."
Seeking input on how to proceed, Wantagh then surveyed its community and said nearly 75% of 962 community members who responded supported filing a lawsuit to fight to keep the Warriors name.
Meanwhile, Wyandanch's efforts to keep its Warriors name received support from Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, who said May 10 he didn't have an issue as long as the school district removed all indigenous references.
The state Education Department said the Shinnecocks' support came too late because the ban specifically said school districts had to have agreements "in place by the effective date of the regulation."
The lawsuit criticized that rationale.
"It is nonsensical that an arbitrary May 3, 2023 deadline is the only distinguishing factor between a permissible use of the Warriors name and an impermissible one — especially when school districts have until the end of the 2024-2025 school year to comply with" the state ban, according to the lawsuit.
Amityville and Comsewogue also use the Warriors team name. Those school districts also have expressed a desire to keep the name.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The 17-member state Board of Regents voted unanimously in April to ban public school districts from having Native American mascots, names and imagery.
- The Wantagh and Wyandanch districts, among 13 Long Island school systems affected by the ban, said they will remove all imagery from their schools but are suing to keep the Warriors name.
- Schools that don't comply risk losing state aid and the removal of school officers, the state said.