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1 school agrees, 1 doesn't when told their teams' logos should go

THE BALTIMORE SUN

C. Anthony Thompson had been principal at Woodlawn High for a few days, not enough time to unpack, when he was visited in July by an official from the State Department of Education.

Woodlawn's longtime nickname -- the Warriors -- took the shape of a Native American in full-feathered regalia. The state school board had passed a resolution encouraging the 26 schools across Maryland with Indian mascots to choose less offensive logos and names. Woodlawn was being strongly urged to follow suit.

"I really believe that if you don't use the name in a negative form, we're paying homage to the name," he said. "But if it's perceived to be a problem, I'm going to have to go with that."

With little fanfare, the Indian head is disappearing from Woodlawn High. Thompson is trying to find the $13,000 he will need to pay for uniforms without the symbol. The giant stone Indian chief that stood watch over the front entrance to the school has been moved and soon, the sign welcoming visitors to Woodlawn will be refinished to remove the last vestige of the logo.

Thirteen miles away, Franklin High School in Reisterstown has its Indians. The mascot has been around since the school decided decades ago to abandon its clunky old mascot, the not-exactly-feared elephant. Franklin is the only school remaining in Baltimore County with a Native American reference in its mascot. For the better part of this school year, the Franklin community discussed whether to change the nickname.

The answer is no.

"It was almost a universal opinion that we keep it," said Dean P. Terry, the principal of Franklin High for six years. "It very definitely honors Native Americans, and no one saw any reason to change it."

The mascot issue bubbled to the state level a year ago. The state school board, endorsing a resolution from the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs and the state's minority achievement steering committee, asked schools to stop using mascots with stereotypical references but did not forbid them outright.

The result: Half of the state's 26 schools with Indian mascots have abandoned them, opting for new names such as Wolverines or Falcons, according to a state report. Of the other half, 11 have decided not to change their names and two have not decided.

Last week, a committee of the California Legislature passed a bill that would force nearly all of the state's public schools to drop mascot names such as Braves and Redskins. It would be the first state in the nation to enact such a ban.

"It puts people in the same category as animals," said Richard Regan, a member of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs and the most vocal on the mascot issue. "Those are the type of names that predominate in the mascot world. We're the only group of people who are objectified in this manner."

This was not the first time the mascot question was raised for Woodlawn's Thompson. Several years ago, he was principal of Potomac High School in Prince George's County, home of the Braves. He was interested in getting rid of the name but decided the cost -- more than $90,000 -- would be prohibitive.

He decided that, in terms of dollars, a change at Woodlawn would be easier, primarily because the name itself would not have to change. A warrior, he said, does not have to be an Indian. He noted other warriors: Zulus, samurais, vikings.

Thompson started speaking of a "warrior spirit" that doesn't change even if the mascot does. He got a positive response, primarily, he and others believe, because he is the leader of a school whose population is 96 percent minority.

"We just said OK," recalled Van Ross, president of the Woodlawn High PTA and a community activist. "Being that we are minorities, we understand where they're coming from -- that it's offensive to them.

"We can relate to it," she said.

Not that all Woodlawn students completely understand it. Some wonder why they were forced to change an image that has been in place for decades.

"I think they make it more of an issue than it is," said Toni Williams, a Woodlawn senior and president of the school's student government. "If we change the name to bumblebees, people who are against bumblebees would be against that, too."

Junior Dominique Vaughn sees it differently: "The name doesn't make a school. The mascot doesn't make the school. It's the people in the school that make a school. We're doing a good thing. We can't be selfish."

Barbara Dezmon, the county's equity coordinator and chairwoman of the state minority achievement committee that originated the state resolution on Indian names, has spoken to the Woodlawn and Franklin communities about the issue. The county has no plans to ban the mascots. When that was done in Montgomery County, she said, it created a furor that was disruptive to students.

Still, she said, "if one person is offended or there is a chance that one person could be offended, in my opinion, you avoid that offense, you don't take a chance on it. It's not satisfactory to say: But we like it, and the Indians in our community like it."

If only at Woodlawn High, Franklin's mascot has disappeared. In the Woodlawn gym, where the banners from each of the county's high schools decorate the walls, banners recognizing the Catonsville Comets and the Hereford Bulls, the Franklin banner doesn't say Indians. It says: "Franklin High" and bears a portrait of Benjamin Franklin.

At Franklin, the conversation about the mascot has, at times, been intense. The student newspaper conducted a survey and found support for keeping the name. Alumni on a Franklin Web site have been strongly in favor of staying with the Indians.

"With all the things going on in the world, why worry about something as minuscule as the name of a high school mascot?" said Stephanie Decker, a member of the Class of 1989. "As far as I can remember, it's always been the Franklin Indians. It would sound stupid to say something else."

In some circles, the Commission on Indian Affairs is resented for making waves.

"It should be up to the Native Americans," said William T. Newton, a Reisterstown carpenter who sells Native American goods. "Are they insulted or not? As near as I can tell, they are not."

"I think we should keep it," said Nadia Humphries, a Franklin senior who says she is part Cherokee. "It's not putting us down. I feel great that they're using my heritage as a symbol of being great and strong, and they're trying to take it away."

To many at Franklin, the discussion is over. They considered changing the name, opened a dialogue and decided to remain the Indians.

Dezmon isn't ready to stop talking.

"If anything were attempted officially, it would probably bring disruption to the community and cause resentment," she said. "I don't want the school to feel put upon. When people change things out of coercion or force, it's very superficial. People don't take it to heart.

"I hope I planted a seed for some serious dialogue," she said. "I don't want the topic to be closed."

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