2017 | Schools

Educators in Montgomery County Wade Into Controversy Over Redskins Team Name

Two private schools prohibit team gear; MCPS declines to enact a blanket ban

Green Acres School’s administrator published a roughly 560-word letter explaining his decision to prohibit students and staff from wearing Redskins apparel on the North Bethesda campus.

The football team had a two-word response.

“No comment,” Tony Wyllie, a Redskins spokesman, wrote in an email Tuesday.

The team’s silence contrasted with other reactions to the Green Acres announcement, which set off the passionate debate over a team name that some consider a racial slur toward Native Americans.

For Montgomery County educators, the issue has been a tricky one in recent years. Public and private schools have reached different conclusions about allowing the Redskins name and logo in their hallways.

Green Acres School has joined Sandy Spring Friends School and Sidwell Friends School in D.C. in prohibiting apparel that bears the team moniker. Montgomery County Public Schools has not enacted a blanket restriction on Redskins clothing, prompting one Silver Spring parent to lodge complaints with the state and the U.S. Department of Education.

“I think it’s terrific that Sidwell Friends and Green Acres and Sandy Spring have made the decision to ban these things from campus, and hopefully, MCPS gets the message that they’re on the wrong side of history,” said the parent, Jared Hautamaki, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2014 canceled the team’s trademark on the grounds that it was disparaging, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June on a separate but similar case that a trademark ban for that reason was unconstitutional.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder has vowed never to change the team name and says it shows respect and honor for American Indians.

A Washington Post poll last year determined that nine in 10 Native Americans were not offended by the team name. The findings were based on phone interviews with 504 self-identified Indians, a methodology that Hautamaki and other Native American activists have criticized.

Both Hautamaki and Green Acres Head of School Neal Brown acknowledge that barring the team apparel limits individual expression. Brown also said he’s not trying to make people feel guilty about cheering for the Redskins, a team beloved by many Green Acres families.

But, he wrote in his Aug. 25 message to families, “we cannot continue to allow children or staff members – however well intentioned – to wear clothing that disparages a race of people.”

Hautamaki started raising the issue with MCPS in 2015 after he noticed his son’s elementary school principal wearing a Washington Redskins polo shirt. He also spotted team flags hanging by classroom walls and the logo on the bulletin board at Highland Elementary School in Wheaton.

The principal took down the bulletin board materials and the flags, and school staff members agreed not to wear team merchandise on campus.

In October 2015, Larry Bowers, the interim superintendent for MCPS at the time, wrote to Hautamaki that other parents also raised concerns about the Washington football team logo.

“[O]ur staff has worked to respond in a manner that is consistent with our core values of integrity and respect, while also adhering to our obligation as a public school district to safeguard the right to free expression enjoyed by our students and staff,” stated the letter, as quoted in a Maryland Board of Education opinion. “As a large, diverse school district, we recognize that everyone may not like what they hear or see in a school environment.”

However, Hautamaki pressed school system officials to ban the team gear, arguing that wearing the logo violates MCPS dress code and nondiscrimination policies. The school board denied his request, and the Maryland Board of Education in September turned down his appeal.

The state board disagreed with Hautamaki that wearing Redskins merchandise in school constitutes bullying under Maryland law and decided that the policy matter should be handled at a district level.

Hautamaki said on Wednesday that he’s now asking federal education officials to intervene.

School board member Jill Ortman-Fouse said she has Native American ancestry and understands the concern about the D.C. team name.

However, she said MCPS draws students from many places and backgrounds, and not everyone is familiar with the issues surrounding the football name. School is the right place for thoughtful dialogue on the topic, she said.

“A lot of our families that don’t have resources may be big fans of this team, and making them feel left out or shamed as families without a conversation about the issue may just create more disruption in the community,” she said. “I think that’s what this moment in our history needs to be about, is having the deeper conversation about what logos like this feel like to people and mean to people.”

Sidwell Friends, a private school founded on Quaker principles, last year banned Redskins merchandise.

Ellis Turner, the associate head of Sidwell Friends, said Wednesday that the school didn’t run into any difficulties with the policy change last year, and the move was supported by families. The policy is still in effect this school year.