Promising comments but not a formal vote to decide the fate of John Jay’s Indian iconography, the Katonah-Lewisboro school board was expected Thursday night, Nov. 7, to put that thorny issue back into the administration’s hands.
In the latest volley in the mascot controversy, school board President Marjorie Schiff said trustees will “simply provide feedback” on School Superintendent Andrew Selesnick’s recommendation last month to retire the Indian symbolism. He called the mascot “at odds with our educational mission” and urged the seven-member board to decide whether to retain it.
Expressing “hope that we’re reaching this decision together,” Selesnick said on Monday, “I think we’re on the same page.”
At issue is whether displaying Native American symbols—even the use by sports teams of the “Indians” nickname—is, as critics contend, racist, divisive and demeaning.
The Indian mascot has been a proud fixture for generations of John Jay athletes and their fans. When questions of its appropriateness arise, as they have in the past, supporters insist the symbolism honors this region’s abundant Native American heritage. Especially in recent years, they note, safeguards forestall any inappropriate displays or actions like tomahawk chops and war chants.
Indeed, at last Friday’s football game, a 20-7 loss to visiting Yorktown, the only Indian images to be found were on the backs of a handful of hoodies emblazoned, “Make John Jay Great Again.” In back, the profile of a Native American with an Indian headdress appeared above the word “Tribe,” a sometime self-identifier for John Jay fans. Other than “Indians” in small letters on players’ jerseys, no “official” Native American representations were on display.
The trustees will not formally vote at the Nov. 7 meeting on whether to end the mascot’s use, Schiff, the board president, made clear. “Although there are many actions and resolutions on which a board must take a vote in order for the administration to move forward, that is not the case here,” she said Sunday in an email response to a reporter’s question. “In this case, the board will simply provide feedback on the recommendation made by our administration.”
Selesnick’s recommendation, made at the board’s last meeting, Oct. 17, put the issue back in the trustees’ court, where the controversy’s latest incarnation had flared to life at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting.
In a board discussion then, trustee Terrence Cheng expressed opposition to having a Native American mascot, maintaining that “the Indian is actually a very divisive symbol. And I don’t think that’s only my opinion. I think that’s reflected in the national and global conversation.”
Cheng’s fellow trustees that night offered varying degrees of support for his view.
Schiff, for her part, noted the district’s “long history with this mascot,” but stopped short of calling for an outright ban. “I am certain that many people have a very strong allegiance and commitment to the mascot,” she said. “That makes this obviously a much more complex issue to tackle.” So Schiff asked Selesnick to develop “a process” for considering the mascot’s fate.
At the Oct. 17 meeting, the superintendent sent the issue back to the board. As he told the community in a letter the next day, “although our Board of Education asked me to develop a process, last night I recommended a decision instead.”
Making his position clear, Selesnick wrote, “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.”
At both the meeting and in his letter, Selesnick noted that several Native American and other organizations have called for discontinuing such iconography. They include the National Congress of American Indians, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the state Education Department and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Each group has indicated their belief that Native American mascots cause harm, no matter the intention behind them,” Selesnick said.
Under state law, the superintendent pointed out, “when someone indicates that our words or actions are causing harm, we must change our behavior, even if we believe our intentions are good.”
In his letter, Selesnick acknowledged the community divisions evident in previous efforts to change the school mascot. But, citing the extensive discussion that accompanied each of those attempts, the superintendent told the board that “this is one of those rare instances when nothing may be gained (and, in fact, more may be lost) by additional discussion.”
“Taking time to seek additional input, only to reach the same outcome,” he said, “will likely frustrate and possibly anger those who take time to participate.”
Still, Selesnick scheduled one final opportunity for district residents to make known their views. A “Learning Café” on Oct. 28 drew more than 80 people to the middle school dining room.
There, at tables big enough to accommodate eight adults, including an administration note-taker, residents gathered for a series of low-key conversations. The discussions were led by Selesnick but carried out in the small-group setting. “That’s the structure of the Learning Café, Selesnick told the attendees. “Rather than hearing from a few voices in the room—or you all listening to me all night, which wouldn’t be good for anybody—we can hear from all of you,” he said.