October 18, 2019

Dear KLSD Community,

At its meeting on September 19th, during discussion of annual goals, our Board of Education asked me to develop a process toward a possible change of the John Jay mascot – the Indians. In response, at lastnight’s meeting, I shared my thinking.

When it comes to important decisions for our District, I typically advise moving slowly and listening carefully while gathering as much input as possible. The thinking I shared with our Board last night, however, was not my typical advice.

During the 1989-1990 school year, the John Jay Campus Congress (students and faculty) resolved to change the mascot and presented their decision first to their school principal and then to the Superintendent of Schools. The issue was fraught with complexity then, as it is today. Ultimately, in 1990, the Superintendent vetoed the students’ decision, and said that the Indians mascot would remain if certain conditions could be met. Among those conditions, he indicated that “symbolic references such as tomahawks, lances, ‘war chants’, caricatures and costuming will be discontinued.”

The mascot has been discussed several more times since the late 1980s. Each time, it has been clear that our community is divided as to whether the Indians is an appropriate mascot. Since my email on September 20th and based on community participation at last night’s meeting, all indications are that the divide remains.

In terms of the education we provide our students and the environment in which we provide it, much has changed since the late 1980s. The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) became NYS law in 2012. It seeks to provide all students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying. It reminds us and our students that when someone indicates that our words or actions are causing harm, we must change our behavior, even if we believe our intentions are good. This is a complicated but important lesson, regardless of one’s age. It forces us to consider the potential gap between our intentions and the impact of our words and actions.

Since the late 80s, the list of organizations and agencies that have called for an end to the use of Native American mascots has grown. That list today includes the National Congress of American Indians, the Intertribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes (representing the Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, and Choctaw Nations), the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the New York State Education Department, the American Psychological Association, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Director of the National Museum of the American Indian. Each group has indicated their belief that Native American mascots cause harm, no matter the intention behind them.

Last night, I said to our Board that if they believe there are enough reasons to consider the John Jay mascot no longer appropriate, then this is one of those rare instances when nothing may be gained (and, in fact, more may be lost) by additional discussion. I have no reason to believe that supporters of our mascot are ill intentioned, nor that they are likely to have a change of heart. Taking time to seek additional input, only to reach the same outcome, will likely frustrate and possibly anger those who take time to participate.

I hope it goes without saying that school spirit is a good thing. Whether that school spirit existed in the 1980’s and causes graduates from that period to feel a strong bond to this day, or whether it exists today, school spirit is to be celebrated. My hope is that no one hears this current conversation as condemnation of the school spirit felt by students of any era. And in the ideal, school spirit should be accessible to all, without the burden of wondering who that spirit might offend.

So although our Board of Education asked me to develop a process, last night I recommended a decision instead. In 2019, maintaining the mascot is at odds with our educational mission. If we are to teach our students the importance of truly listening when someone or some group tells us that our behavior or our words are harmful or unwelcome, then we as a District should serve as a model.

Because our Board heard my thoughts for the first time last night, they will consider them between now and our next meeting on November 7th, though nothing said last night leads me to believe the Board is wavering from the sentiments expressed on September 19th.

In the meantime, on October 28, we will devote our first Learning Café of this school year to the topic of our mascot. The purpose of the Café will be to further explain the educational rationale that led me to the recommendation I made to our Board last night. Among other things, we will provide additional information on the stances taken by the various organizations listed above. I will provide more details about the Café’s logistics next week.

I will report back to our BOE in the coming weeks with various options on the cost of transitioning from the current mascot to a new one.

Assuming our Board accepts my recommendation, the process moving forward will be to select a new mascot and create new traditions with all expediency. Knowing that there is pride for the history of our region and the land on which our schools sit, I hope a new mascot can reflect that pride while also unifying our students. A new mascot should be something for which all can cheer, one that will engender pride and school spirit for many years to come.

For some in our community this change will be a relief and perhaps cause to celebrate. For others, it will be painful. As I have in the past, I ask all to be understanding and respectful of differing points of view. And I’ll make a request that’s not much in keeping with our times. Let’s temper our reactions, out of respect for those whose feelings and opinions are at odds with our own.

My thanks to all those members of our community who joined us last night and who have emailed recently. Your thoughts are always appreciated.

Andrew Selesnick, Superintendent of Schools