School mascots in Michigan with American Indian imagery have been spared by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights—but the legal wrangling and heated emotions surrounding them appear likely to continue.
The OCR late last month dismissed a complaint from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights that sought to ban the use of such mascots and imagery in K-12 schools that receive federal funds.
The Michigan civil rights department argued in its February complaint that the use of American Indian imagery denied equal rights to Native American students. The state agency’s director of law and policy cited research that suggests such imagery results in “actual harm” to current and future American Indian students.
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, schools that receive federal money are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The job of the OCR in mascot complaints, as described in its response to the Michigan civil rights department, is to determine if the allegations “are sufficient to constitute a racially hostile environment.”
The federal office defines such an environment as “one in which racially harassing conduct takes place that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the recipient’s programs or services.”
When the OCR asked the Michigan civil rights agency to identify specific students who had been harmed by American Indian mascots, the state agency cited only research as the basis of its complaint.
“You did not provide to OCR any specific examples of race-based incidents nor identify any students or individuals who have suffered specific harm because of the alleged discrimination at any of the named school districts,” wrote Catherine Criswell, the director of the OCR’s Cleveland branch, in the letter, dated May 29.
As a result, the OCR determined that the evidence provided wasn’t sufficient to begin an investigation, and thus dismissed the complaint.
The Michigan civil rights agency received notice of the dismissal May 31, according to the Associated Press, and is considering whether to appeal the decision. A successful appeal could end up being costly, however.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Mich. Loses Round In Mascots Dispute