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Michigan complaint to ban American Indian mascots dismissed

The Brother Rice (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.) mascot cheers during a football game. / Rashaun Rucker, Detroit Free Press

American Indian mascots, names and imagery will stay in Michigan schools for now.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has dismissed a complaint filed against 35 Michigan school districts that alleged that the use of such imagery is discriminatory.

The complaint, filed earlier this year by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, could have had national implications and would have forced schools to choose new mascots, names or imagery. The department can appeal the ruling.

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The 35 districts cited in the complaint include seven school districts in metro Detroit.

The Michigan civil rights department was buoyed by what it said was a growing body of research that found the use of American Indian mascots, names and imagery is having a harmful academic impact on American Indian students.

But the federal department, in its letter dismissing the complaint, said the information the state department provided "is not sufficient for OCR to infer that racial discrimination has occurred or is occurring," said Catherine Criswell, director of the OCR office.

Criswell said the department had not provided to OCR any specific examples of race-based incidents or identified "any students or individuals who have suffered specific harm because of the alleged discrimination at any of the named school districts."

The OCR notified the Michigan civil rights department Friday that the complaint was being dismissed. Officials with the state department said Monday they are disappointed.

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The department's complaint asked the OCR to create a new standard for determining whether there is a hostile environment. The current standard requires the MDCR to prove there is intent to discriminate against students, said Leslee Fritz, spokeswoman for the state department.

"That's an incredibly hard threshold to meet. It's a rare instance where there's intent," Fritz said.

She said the department believes most school districts choose their mascot and their imagery "in an effort to show respect to a community and to the community's history. They're not intending to do harm."

The MDCR argument, though, is that "it's no longer a relevant part of the conversation when we know harm is happening."

Fritz said the department has several options moving forward. It can appeal the OCR decision. It can ask the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to issue a declaratory ruling. It can ask the Legislature to take action. Or it can keep working with school districts on a case by case basis to make the change.

The latter, Fritz said, is a slow process. She cited schools in Milan, Okemos and Marshall as having made the change in recent years.

"In every case, whether we've been involved or not, it's been a slow, controversial, difficult process."

Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, lhiggins@freepress.com or via Twitter @LoriAHiggins.



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