Republican legislators in Wisconsin introduced a bill Thursday that would make it harder to strip public schools of race-based nicknames and would allow schools ordered to abandon such nicknames to keep them.
The proposal, which one Native American official described as racist, was co-sponsored by a lawmaker whose school district about 20 miles southwest of Milwaukee is fighting a state order to replace its "Indians" moniker.
The bill, which is almost certain to pass in the Republican-dominated state Assembly, comes amid renewed debate about the use of race-based nicknames, including calls for the Washington Redskins to assume a new name. It would require those who want to change a nickname to gather enough petition signatures from school district residents to equal or exceed one-tenth of the number of district students. For example, someone filing a complaint in a district with 2,000 students would have to obtain 200 names.
Signatures would have to be gathered in the 120 days before the complaint is filed with the state Department of Administration, which issues the final decision on whether a nickname must go. The measure would place the burden of proof on the complainant to show the name promotes discrimination, pupil harassment or stereotyping. It also would vacate all of the department's orders to school districts to drop their monikers.
The bill would mark a dramatic departure from current state law, which allows a single person to file a complaint, places the burden of proof on the school district to show the nickname isn't discriminatory and gives the DPI the power to make the final decision and order the district to change the name.
"This legislation is a good step in recognizing that a single individual should not be able to dictate their will over a whole community and in the process deprive an entire group of people their right to due process," said state Rep. Dave Craig, R-Big Bend. "As a resident of the Mukwonago School District, I hope my colleagues will join us in reversing the wrongs that we have imposed on many of our state's school districts by passing this legislation without delay."
Barbara Munson, an Oneida Indian who chairs the Wisconsin Indian Education Association's Indian Mascot and Logo Task Force, called the bill racist.
"That's terrible. That's anti-educational. It's racist," she said. "For 21 years I've avoided that term. But it's almost impossible to ... describe this particular action in any other way."
The state has ordered three school districts, including Mukwonago, to change their names since Democrats put the current law in place in 2010. Two have complied but Mukwonago officials have openly defied the state's order, saying the district has used its "Indians" nickname for more than 80 years. The district's attorney estimated replacing the nickname would cost district taxpayers as much as $100,000.
The bill looks almost certain to pass the state Assembly; Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, called the proposal reasonable in a joint press release with Craig on Thursday.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn't immediately return a message. Neither did a spokesman for Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The Oneida Nation in upstate New York launched a national campaign last month pressing the Redskins to change their nickname, calling it a racial slur. North Dakota's Higher Education Board decided last year to drop the University of North Dakota's "Fighting Sioux" nickname rather than face NCAA sanctions. The school has not yet adopted a new moniker.
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