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Dispute over 'Redskins' name hits home at Montgomery County school

Controversy at a Montgomery County school illustrates the enduring, unsettled nature of the debate over the team name and logos of the NFL's Washington Redskins.

The burgundy-and-gold bulletin board was supposed to welcome students as the school year opened. "Kicking off a new year," it said in colorful block letters surrounded by footballs and Washington Redskins pennants and logos.

But to Jared Hautamaki, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians, the display at Montgomery County's Highland Elementary School, however well-meaning, conveyed something altogether different — the condoning of a football team's name he considers racially insensitive.

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Hautamaki, 39, an Environmental Protection Agency attorney from Silver Spring, said that when he dropped off his son for kindergarten one day in September, he noticed the principal was wearing a polo shirt with "Redskins' in stylized letters on the sleeve.

"Several other staff members, including my son's teacher, were also wearing team merchandise, some of which featured the slur and some of which featured the logo, a stereotyped image of a Plains Indian," Hautamaki said in an administrative complaint delivered to the principal last week.

Hautamaki's objections — and a forceful rebuttal from several dozen parents defending existing school policies — illustrate the enduring, unsettled nature of the debate over the NFL team's name and logos.

For years, the Redskins have fought to win the public-relations battle over their name and to preserve their federal trademark registrations. In July, a federal judge, affirming a ruling of the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, ordered the trademarks canceled because they may disparage a large number of Native Americans.

The team has appealed, arguing in court papers that the government has registered plenty of companies with offensive names.

The issue has filtered down to schools.

"I'm not going to let this go — this is my kid," said Hautamaki, whose complaint requests that the county's school dress code be enforced and reassessed. He said he intends to pursue his complaint to the Maryland State Board of Education if necessary.

"Is that we want teachers teaching our kids, that it's OK to stereotype?" he said.

The school dress code says clothing "that offends others or disrupts learning is inappropriate."

Hautamaki said the team's apparel — he never uses the team name directly — falls into that realm.

The school district, which has stopped short of banning Redskins-marked clothing, said it is trying to work with Hautamaki. Scott Steffan, Highland's principal, referred comments this week to the county school system, which emailed a statement.

"The issue of the team name has not come up very much in our district and when it has, we have worked with our schools to address the concerns in a respectful way," Dana Tofig, a school system spokesperson, said in the statement. "In this case, the school has taken many steps, including the removal of team's logos and images from classrooms, bulletin boards and other parts of the building. Ultimately, we cannot promise that everyone will like everything they see or hear in a school building."

Tofig said the district is trying to balance its commitment "to equity and respect" with "the free expression rights of our students and staff."

Hautamaki is listed on the website of the EPA, where he works in enforcement and compliance, as a member of the agency's Native American community along with people from other tribes such as the Navajo Nation and the Oneida Nation. He previously worked on Native American issues as a staff member for Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat.

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A number of other parents at the school have weighed in.

"This is not just about the Redskins team or the word," several dozen parents wrote to the county Board of Education, which included the comments on its website. "None of us are trying to dehumanize Native Americans but rather we are demonstrating our American love of football. For many of our families, buying a Redskins jersey is a financial sacrifice, one they are willing to make to support their local NFL team. No one is wearing the gear to convey a message of racism."

While some teams' names are potentially offensive, the parents' testimony said that "being offensive is not a crime, and being offended does not make you a victim. If you don't like the Washington Redskins, then don't support them. That's the American Way!"

Hautamaki, who is married with three young children, testified in person at the county school board's Oct. 13 meeting, citing the "detrimental psychological effects that repeated studies have shown that Native mascots and such logos have on not just Native students, but on all students."

The other parents indicated in their testimony that most school staff members had opted not to display Redskins gear "out of respect" for Hautamaki. "But again, this is by their CHOICE, not by force," they wrote.

Hautamaki said he attended an autumn festival at the school on Friday afternoon "with the kids' costume parade and the whole nine yards, and I didn't see anything" of concern.

In 2001, Montgomery County's school board barred schools from using of Indian names or racial, gender or cultural stereotypes for team names or mascots. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill barring schools from using "Redskins" as a team name.

Tony Wyllie, the Redskins' senior vice president for communications, declined to comment.

"Our position remains consistent with more than 80 percent of Americans who do not want to change the Washington Redskins name," the team said last year.

Hautamaki, who used to live in Michigan, said he likes sports. "I'm a Lions and Red Wings fan," he said of the Detroit football and hockey teams.

He said it was hard to be a Lions fan — not because of their name but because of their performance on the field.

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