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'It's harmful for kids to see that in the hallways'



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March 11, 2014 | 03:11 PM
WALWORTH — “I can’t comment on (Big Foot High School) because I don’t know that school,” Jill Gonzalez of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association said. “The letter we sent went to all schools in the state with race-based mascots.”

Gonzalez, WIEA board member for the south region, which includes Walworth County, said the recent letter that requested that Big Foot High School change its name aimed at deleting the stereotypes in schools.

“People say we should be honored,” she said in a phone conversation March 7. “But really those names of chiefs and warriors highlight a period of our history that wasn’t a nice time for our people.”

Gonzalez said many people don’t realize the harm that racial stereotypes do.

“It’s harmful for kids to see that in the hallways at school,” she said. “That’s not who we are today.”

Christy Atkinson Gessler, a 1989 graduate of Big Foot High School, said she doesn’t see the school’s name as negative.

“We were all extremely proud to be Chiefs,” she said in an email. “At all times, our behavior and enthusiasm for our team was positive and respectful. While I deeply appreciate the sensitivity we must have to all people, I would be saddened to see the positive tradition that Big Foot High School has always embraced go away.”

Mukwonago example

Cindy Kraus, a 1970 graduate of Big Foot, said she hopes Big Foot can fight this battle the same way Mukwonago High School has fought it over the past few years.

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“The idea to change the name and mascot disappoints me,” she said in an email. “I thought new (Wisconsin) legislation was enacted to prevent this from happening. Mukwonago had the same issue, but (they) were able to prevent the change.”

In 2010, Gov. Jim Doyle signed Act 250, which dictates how race-based nicknames and team names can be used by schools.

Since then, the WIEA reports that 33 school districts have changed their names or mascots from race-based names.

Under Act 250, only one complaint against a school was needed to trigger a Department of Public Instruction hearing.

In December 2013, Gov. Scott Walker signed a law, which changed the hearing process.

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Now, in order to trigger a hearing, complainants must collect signatures from adults that equal 10 percent of the student enrollment at the school in 120 days.

In Big Foot’s case, this would be about 55 signatures, based on enrollment numbers from the DPI.

July 21, 2010, the DPI received a complaint from a Mukwonago resident, which alleged the district used a race-based nickname that promoted discrimination. The high school teams are called the Indians.

The DPI agreed in August 2010, saying Mukwonago High School needed to “terminate its use of the ‘Indians’ nickname and logo” by Oct. 8, 2011.

The district didn’t file an appeal, but parents sued the state, saying the effort to change the district’s mascot will cost them money.

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The DPI order was blocked by a judge. According to Living Lake Country, this January, the 2nd District Court of Appeals agreed with the state, reversing the lower judge’s block and reinstating the DPI order, though it delayed the time line for changes needed to the facility.

With the new state laws changing the way complaints need to be filed, the status of Mukwonago’s mascot is unclear.

State Superintendent Tony Evers issued a statement after Walker signed the updated mascot law in December.

“The children of Wisconsin are not served well when legislation makes it more difficult for citizens to object to discrimination they see in local schools,” he said. “In no other situation of harassment, stereotyping, bullying or discrimination must an individual gather signatures from others to have the matter considered by a government body.”

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