Madison public school students will no longer be allowed to wear clothing with Native American athletic team names, logos or mascots that depict “negative stereotypes” while at school, after the Madison School Board voted to enact the rule in a unanimous vote last month.
The policy, which goes into effect this fall, might be the first of its kind for a school district, according to students who drafted the proposal.
The new policy also mandates that Madison schools ask visiting teams to leave Native American mascots and logos at home when they play a Madison school. If the other school does not comply, the game may be canceled.
And it would ban other clothing with “negative stereotypes” of race, gender, religion and other characteristics.
Gabriel Saiz, a junior at West High School and a member of the Ponca Tribe, worked with student government and other Native American students to draft the new policy and propose it to the board. He said the proposal wasn’t based on anything he’d seen before.
“We’re here to destroy an aspect of our oppression,” he said. “People can say whatever they want, but I don’t want representations of how you see us and how you want us to act, because that’s going to destroy self-esteem and make the school less safe for Native students.”
Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said the policy was vague. He advised schools to enforce it carefully, and refrain from punishing students who don’t intend for their clothing to be offensive.
Tim Fish, the Title VII Indian Education coordinator in the Madison School District, said the movement began when Native American students, who make up less than 1 percent of the city school’s student population, told him they felt invisible. He created the Native American Student Association, and the group’s first priority was to ban clothing that members deemed harmful, he said.
The rule won’t outlaw all Native American names and logos, Fish said. The ban focuses exclusively on sports teams with Native American names.
Before the 2015-16 school year begins, the Native American Student Association will work with the district to publish a list of prohibited logos and team names, which Saiz said will include teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks and Florida State Seminoles.
He said that even though a few Native groups don’t find those team names offensive, they will still be banned because, as sports teams with Native names, they create a negative stereotype.
While some schools in the district have Native American names — such as Black Hawk Middle School — none has an athletic team or mascot based on Native Americans.
That means a student could wear a shirt from Black Hawk Middle School because its athletic teams use a wolf as a mascot. A shirt that reads “Chicago Blackhawks,” however, would be banned, because it’s a professional hockey team that uses a Native American name and mascot.
If a student breaks the rule, the school will treat it like any other dress code violation, Fish said. A teacher can ask the student to turn the clothing inside out, go home and change or put something over the logo. If a student refuses to change, the school reserves the right to suspend or expel the student, according to the district’s policies and procedures.
Fish said the student group will help develop a training program to instruct teachers on how to enforce the new policy.
The district’s Behavior Education Plan contains an existing dress code policy: “Generally, students may dress in any style they desire as long as their chosen attire does not cause a disruption or distraction in the school environment, reveal intimate body parts or pose a safety risk to the student or others.”
The policy lists other prohibited items, such as hats, exposed bras, large metal chains and pants that are too low.
The district said next year, the policy will also prohibit “clothing with words, pictures or caricatures based on negative stereotypes of a specific gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or disability. Students may not wear shirts, hats or other attire with Native American team names, logos or mascots that depict negative stereotypes. A list of team names, logos and mascots prohibited under this provision is available at all schools and on the District website.”
Ahmuty said the section of the policy that outlaws negative stereotypes has “a real problem with vagueness.” He asked, “How are students supposed to know what a negative stereotype is?”
And while the School Board will provide a list of prohibited Native American team names, Ahmuty said it’s not realistic to do the same for all negative stereotypes.
He said the part of the policy that outlaws Native American team names and logos was well-intentioned but must be enforced carefully. Schools can legally limit their students’ speech, but only when there is evidence that the speech is disruptive or harmful to the learning environment, he said.
He said the new policy presumes that an individual student — as opposed to a school or a district — can create a harmful environment and that might not be the case.
“Shouldn’t we look at these things individually instead of on the basis of fear?” he said.
But Carrie Bohman, a West High School history teacher, said one student’s clothing can create a harmful environment.
“If I see a student wearing a T-shirt that is anti-Semitic, anti-African-American, even anti-female, I have to respond to that,” she said. “That’s part of our mission statement. Even if one person may feel uncomfortable, that’s a hostile learning environment.”
Daphna Oyersman, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California who has researched the effects of Native American mascots and logos, said the amount of psychological harm a race-based logo can cause depends on the racial group.
“If there are plenty of other ways in which your group is represented, maybe it does not matter,” Oyersman said, “If your group is otherwise invisible and this is pretty much the only way that your group is present in the public sphere ... that is the image that comes to mind when people think of your group.”
In a school setting, Oyersman said that her research found mascot images reduced the importance of school in students’ future self-image.
And, she said that contextual cues in a learning environment are very powerful in shaping future self-identities and current actions.
“Small changes in context matter for everyone. It is not just Native Americans,” Oyersman said.
She said that while students wearing a Native American logo may not see themselves as bullies, they imply that their right to wear the logo is more important than Native Americans’ rights to define their own group separate from sports-based images.