The Massapequa school district filed a lawsuit against the New York State Board of Regents Thursday claiming the agency violated its constitutional rights when it banned the use of Native American mascots, team names and imagery in public schools.
The ban, which was codified in May, stated that affected schools had to resolve to do away with the team names and imagery by June 2022, and eradicate all references to the name and imagery by the end of the 2024-2025 school year.
Massapequa goes by “Chiefs” and is one of 13 Long Island districts affected by the statute.
“The Chief is more than a logo to our schools and community,” the board of education wrote in a letter on its website. "It is our history and our heritage. When we speak of the Massapequa ‘Chief,’ we do so with pride and respect. As a Board, we are united in our efforts to stand up for our community and years of tradition.”
WHAT TO KNOW
- Massapequa, which uses the "Chiefs" nickname, had vowed to fight against the state's Native American mascot ban and filed a lawsuit on Thursday claiming it is unconstitutional.
- There are 13 Long Island school districts affected by the ban that was passed unanimously by the Board of Regents in April.
- The state has said that schools that don't comply risk losing state aid and the removal of school officers.
State education department spokesman JP O'Hare said it does not comment on pending litigation. The state previously said the statute is allowed under the Dignity For All Students Act, which intends to create a non-hostile learning environment for students.
A copy of the complaint, filed in federal district court and obtained by Newsday, alleges that the board of regents:
- Violated standard procedure to essentially fast-track the ban.
- Exceeded its scope of authority by creating a “blanket prohibition” that didn’t specify which schools would have to make the change.
- As an administrative body working within the executive branch, infringed on the governmental separation of powers; the suit alleges that though it is being termed a “statute,” the ban functions as a law, and creation of law is a legislative duty.
- Was “impermissibly… [and] unconstitutionally vague” in violation of the 14th Amendment protecting the right to due process.
- Violates the first amendment when banning school officials and officers from wearing “Chiefs” apparel, both on school property and when attending school functions like athletic events.
A message left with the district’s lawyer was not returned.
The state has said that schools that don't comply risk losing state aid and the removal of school officers, though the state said this is a last resort.
Other Long Island schools have signaled an intent to challenge the ban.
Amityville, Comsewogue, Wyandanch, Wantagh, all of which go by “Warriors,” and Sachem (“Flaming Arrows”) adopted the resolution to change their names while stipulating that they maintain the right to push back against the state’s regulation. Some of those schools said they were open to eradicating their mascot while keeping their team names.
The state, though, said names such as “Warriors” must go if they were ever associated with Indigenous imagery. The remaining affected districts are Brentwood, Manhasset and Sewanhaka ("Indians"), Half Hollow Hills' East High School and Connetquot ("Thunderbirds"), Syosset ("Braves"), and East Islip (Redmen).
Schools did have a window to obtain an exemption from federally or state-recognized tribes, but no Long Island school was able to secure one before a May 3 deadline.
The complaint saw issue with the exemption process as well.
Tribes “cannot be the sole decision-makers on whether a school district’s use of an Indigenous name, logo, or mascot is legal,” it reads. “They are not elected officials accountable to constituents…”
Massapequa previously reached out to the Shinnecock, according to Rainbow Chavis, who works for the tribe’s human resources department. Those conversations stalled, with Chavis noting that the Chiefs' logo isn’t historically accurate since it depicts a Western tribal member, and not a Native American indigenous to Long Island.
“It’s offensive when you say you’re trying to honor us,” Shinnecock chairman Bryan Polite said earlier this year. “That’s hogwash. If that were true, talk to someone [from the local tribe]. You honor us by incorporating our history into the curriculum, having a cultural exchange, having the [students] come to a pow wow and writing a paper over the summer.”
With Jim Baumbach