April 18, 2014

Assembly approves changes to mascot challenges

The process for challenging a Native American nickname or logo used by a public school would be much harder, under a bill approved Tuesday by the state Assembly.

The legislation would make several changes to a 2010 law, which allowed an individual to challenge the use of a race-based mascot at a public school and allowed the Department of Public Instruction force a school to remove it. Under the proposal, those challenging a mascot would have to collect petition signatures from district residents equal to 10 percent of the school’s population. They would then have to prove that a mascot creates discrimination, and is not just offensive. The bill would also have the Department of Administration review a challenge, instead of DPI.

State Representative Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), the sponsor of the bill, says it gives schools a chance to defend themselves from a process that is currently “an outright ban,” because schools cannot win once a challenge is filed. Nass says that, while some mascots may be offensive, decisions on removing them should be made on the local level unless they create actual discrimination.

Democrats spent more than two hours Tuesday criticizing the bill. State Representative Sondy Pope (D-Madison) says it allows schools to mimic the sacred symbols and acts of Native American culture, while removing one of the few options the minority would have to challenge them. Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Madison) noted that many of Wisconsin’s tribes supported the 2010 law, and argued the latest proposal “takes us dramatically backwards, in terms of the progress that we have made between tribal relations and our state of Wisconsin.”

Since the current law was enacted, DPI has received four complaints. Of those, three schools were ordered to drop their Native American mascots and one voluntarily agreed to make changes after a complaint was filed. The Mukwanago Area School District challenged the order to drop its name in court.  About 30 schools in the state still have Native American mascots or team names.

The bill passed on a 52-41 vote. It now heads to the state Senate.