Mascot ban forces Brentwood to make costly changes, but district says, 'You have to do the right thing'
At least one of the Long Island school districts affected by the state's ban on Native American mascots says it's doing its best to embrace the change.
Brentwood Superintendent Rich Loeschner said Wednesday the district began the process of finding a replacement for its Indians nickname and mascot late last year, and though the changes will be expensive — likely well over $400,000, he said — “you have to do the right thing.”
With 17 schools and a student population of almost 18,000, according to the New York State Education Department, Brentwood is the largest of the Long Island districts likely to be affected by the ban, which was passed by unanimous vote by the state Board of Regents during a meeting in Albany Tuesday. Brentwood has more than 60 interscholastic teams, Loeschner said.
“The Brentwood Board of Education and the community, by and large, is committed to make a change,” Loeschner said. He said it was never the district's intention to offend anyone. "It was only meant to celebrate Native Americans. It was meant to honor the characteristics of Native Americans.
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Brentwood Superintendent Rich Loeschner said the district began making plans months ago to change the school's Indians team name and mascot and consulted with leaders of the Shinnecock Nation.
Loeschner said that because of the size of the district — 17 schools and almost 18,000 students — the cost of the changes would exceed $400,000. Still, he said, "You have to do the right thing."
- Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Nation, said the financial cost of removing these names and images "pales in comparison to the emotional damage they do."
"But once you find out, after speaking to them personally, that it’s offensive, then you have to do the right thing and move forward with change; [and] the Shinnecock did find the word Indian offensive" in that context.
“It was absolutely” a positive conversation, said Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Nation. “It was a long conversation, and he invited us to a school board meeting.”
“It’s not just that these mascots are offensive, it’s offensive when you say you’re trying to honor us. 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 powwow and writing a paper over the summer.”
The financial burden of removing the mascots “pales in comparison to the emotional damage they do,” Polite said.
Logistics, though, dictate changes won’t be immediate.
Loeschner said each of the district’s buildings is emblazoned with a “B” and feather — a logo no longer permissible under the ban — and the district will also have to replace newly bought uniforms. Scoreboards and terrazzo floors with the Indians logo will have to be replaced, and courts must be sanded down and re-varnished. To do everything at once, he said, would put too heavy a burden on taxpayers. The district, however, has already started putting funds aside.
In addition to Brentwood, there are at least a dozen more Long Island schools likely to be affected by the ban: the Manhasset and Sewanhaka Indians; the Comsewogue, Wyandanch, Amityville and Wantagh Warriors; East Islip Redmen; Massapequa Chiefs; Syosset Braves; and the Sachem East and Sachem North Flaming Arrows. Other schools that might have to make a change include the Connetquot and Half Hallow Hills East Thunderbirds and the Center Moriches, Freeport and Plainedge Red Devils.
Superintendents across Long Island said they need to await further guidance and confirmation from the state Education Department before going ahead with any changes. A department source said further guidance would be released but could not say when. Messages left with department commissioner Betty Rosa were not returned.
Loeschner said he sent out a survey to the community, staff and students weeks ago asking for ideas for a new logo and mascot, though no final decision is expected until the upcoming school year.
"To date, I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails” with name ideas, he said. “Our intention is absolutely to involve students, alumni and community members.”
Districts will have until the end of the 2024-25 school year to remove Native American references from uniforms, scoreboards, fields and buildings on school property and must commit to those changes via resolution by the end of this school year. Those that do not comply risk losing state aid, and school officers will face removal.
Shortly after the Tuesday vote, representatives of some schools, like Wantagh, wondered if they could remove their Indian head mascot and retain their name. Massapequa officials said via a statement that they will look to retain their nickname and were considering legal recourse. Massapequa Superintendent William Brennan declined to comment further via a spokeswoman Wednesday.
East Islip Interim Superintendent Paul Manzo said the district, which had been phasing out its Redmen branding, would change its mascot.
"We had a board meeting Tuesday night," he said, "and the board indicated we'd comply with the state mandate. But we are awaiting further guidelines and parameters before moving forward. We are all about East Islip Pride, but at this point there hasn't been any discussion about future imagery or a mascot or what kind of name change there could be."
Like Manzo, Loeschner intends to make the end-of-year resolution required by the state. The district will spend the next school year coming up with a new name with the help of stakeholders, students and the Brentwood community. The hope is to create a sort of contest with community submissions and then make a choice via committee, he said.
Loeschner also knows there will be people who disagree with the change.
“We understand that it has an impact on alumni and community members that have been here a long time, so we’ve talked about it at lots of our board meetings dating back to December,” he said. “This doesn’t erase all the accolades that teams and individual students have received for the last 50 to 60 years. They’ll always be a part of our history. We just have a name change.”
Tela Troge, a lawyer and representative for the Shinnecock Nation, said the changes will have a profound, positive impact on Native American children.
“We feel really excited for our children that they won’t be exposed to stereotypes at the schools,” she said. “I think these younger generations are maybe more aware of the true history of the region than some of the older generations, so I’m very optimistic and confident that the schools will be able to come up with new mascots, logos and team names that are respectful of the dignity and diversity of all the students on Long Island and throughout the State of New York.”
With Gregg Sarra