A sign protesting the name of the Washington Redskins football team.Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The Houston Independent School District (HISD) on Thursday banned team names and mascots that depict Native American culture, responding to growing public sentiment that such race-based references are offensive.
The Houston school district is the largest in Texas and the seventh-largest in the United States, with 282 schools and about 210,000 students. Its decision could influence other school systems that are reconsidering team and mascot names that may be viewed as inappropriate.
The Houston school board unanimously approved a new policy that prohibits the use of race-based team names and mascots.
The move will change the mascots of the Lamar High School Redskins, the Hamilton Middle School Indians, the Welch Middle School Warriors and the Westbury High School Rebels. The “Rebel” name has been seen as a reference to the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The decision has been a divisive one in the community, with supporters championing the decision and opponents crying foul over “political correctness” and the end of tradition.
Uche Owor, a student at Lamar High School, told a local Fox affiliate he was opposed to the change. “The school’s been that for a long time, and why change the name right now? It makes no sense,” he said.
In a statement posted on the school district’s website, chief school support officer Drew Houlihan said the change was a positive one.
“We realize ... that this is an issue which brings out deep emotions on both sides,” said Houlihan. “While traditions are important, they do not trump kindness and respect. We owe that both to the students at these schools and to the community at large.”
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, also issued comments of support after the measure passed.
"Tonight's vote is a small step toward making our education system a better place for all children by recognizing that our diversity is what makes us stronger as a community and stronger as a district," he said.
The use of race-based team names and mascots came under scrutiny over the past year with a campaign to pressure the National Football League's Washington Redskins to change their name.
In a statement issued by the Redskins, the team said that it respected HISD’s "right to make decisions on a local matter," but that it felt the change would be "disregarding the appreciation and pride many Native Americans hold for a name that respects our country’s Indian heritage and tradition."
During the last several years, school districts throughout the United States have changed their mascots and names in response to a growing public outcry against using depictions of Native Americans and other minorities to promote sports teams.
In California, Coachella Valley High School, where teams are known as the Arabs, has come under fire from an Arab-American rights group that says the mascot is an offensive caricature.
But in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed into law in December a measure making it tougher for those who object to race-based mascots and team names to force a change at their school districts.
Walker said he signed the bill because he was concerned about free speech and that a better alternative would be to educate people about how certain phrases and symbols may be offensive.
Al Jazeera and wire services