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12 Colorado schools still face monthly $25K fines under new law banning American Indian mascots

At least one district pushed back against two of its schools being on the “offensive mascot registry,” saying it made changes but the board won’t give it feedback

Central High School varsity basketball players wait to warm up on the court below the Grand Junction school's newly-unveiled mascot of a shield bearing the letter "C" on the main's gym wall Thursday, Jan. 6, ahead of their game against Heritage High School. The school's old mascot of a Native American Warrior still adorns the team's water cooler by the bench. (Gretel Daugherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Eleven schools were removed Thursday from a list of schools that were not in compliance with a new state law banning the use of American Indian mascots, leaving 12 schools facing fines of $25,000 a month if they haven’t complied by June 1.

Montrose County School District issued a swift rebuke to the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs board’s decision to keep two of its schools on what Montrose called the “state’s offensive mascot registry.”

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The CCIA board is charged with implementing Senate Bill 116, which requires public K-12 schools to eliminate American Indian mascots, logos and other imagery by June 1 or face monthly fines.

Montrose made its case to the CCIA board in January that the Johnson Elementary School Thunderbirds mascot was a cross-cultural mythical bird. The school modernized the imagery of its mascot to ensure it did not use Native American iconography.

The board made no comment after the January presentation and made no comment Thursday when it declined to remove the elementary school from the list. 

Later in the meeting, the board briefly considered adding two other schools to the list that have Thunderbird mascots: Hinkley High School in Aurora and Sangre de Cristo School District north of Alamosa. It was unclear where the suggestion came from, but Redhorse indicated she had spoken with Hinkley and it said its mascot related to the Air Force.

The board did not add either of them to the school list. Montrose spokesman Matt Jenkins said he had no comment on that decision.

The board also kept Montrose High School on the list, although it has changed its mascot from the Indians to the Red Hawk.

“We have no idea how or why the commissioners would find the Montrose High School ‘Red Hawk’ an inappropriate or offensive alternative,” the district said in a release.

“Our community has worked hard to meet the requirements this burden has placed on our schools by Governor Polis and the commission,” the release said. “Thus far, the commission has been silent toward our repeated requests for clarification and communication on this issue, despite our good faith effort to meet the requirements of this legislative change.”

The district has budgeted $375,000 to pay for changes associated with the new mascots.

The CCIA board did vote to remove Centennial Middle School in Montrose from the list after it changed its nickname to the Bears from the Braves.

The board also declined Elbert County School District’s request to remove Kiowa Elementary, Middle School and High School from the list. The district, located in the town of Kiowa, has reached agreement with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma to retain its Indian mascot. The law allows schools or districts with partnerships with recognized tribes to retain Native mascots. 

Board members asked several questions about the date and content of a letter from the tribal chairman, including whether a letter would be considered an agreement. CCIA Executive Director Kathryn Redhorse read a portion of the law as it pertains to tribal agreements but there was no further discussion, and a request for a motion to remove the schools from the list was met with silence.

Action on many of the schools removed from the list came quickly and with little discussion as board members indicated they were acting on CCIA staff recommendations.

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However, documentation submitted by the districts and any staff recommendations were not provided during the meeting or under multiple requests to the governor’s press office. Redhorse briefly summarized the districts’ requests.

A few districts said they were in the process of changing and would submit more documentation to CCIA for the May 19 meeting — the last chance they will have to be voted off the list of those not in compliance with the law.

For example, the Arickaree School District in northeast Colorado said it was changing from the Indians to the Wolves, a move its board is expected to vote on this month, Redhorse told the board. Mountain Valley School District in Saguache also informed the board that it was changing its mascot from the Indian to the Wolves but that work is not completed.

The three schools in Eaton School District had remained on the list with asterisks by their names, but they had never been discussed by the board. The names were removed on Thursday. Superintendent Jay Tapia said in an interview Friday morning that the schools will retain the historical Reds nickname, linked to the schools’ jersey color, but is in the process of removing Indian imagery that had been associated with the name since the 1960s.

Tapia said he recently emailed Redhorse with the district’s schedule for removing images from the gym floor and a stucco exterior wall after school lets out for the summer, but had not heard back.

Tribe, Yetis, Pioneers

Two districts that presented to the board during a January work session, Lamar and Yuma, did not submit any additional documentation for Thursday’s meeting. Both had been advised to come up with a “Plan B” because the board was skeptical of its mascot plans. 

Lamar said it wanted to keep its Savages nickname but would rid its schools of all Native American imagery. A logo committee has been working since January and expects to make a presentation to the district’s board of education on March 21. A recent online update made no mention of the Savages nickname.

The Yuma School District had proposed using Tribes as a nickname, but CCIA board members said that seemed to relate more to the district’s use of Indians as a mascot than as a generic use of Tribe. The board reportedly voted last month to eliminate the Indian mascot, but did not opt for a new one, according to a Denver Post article

Runners up to the Tribe nickname preferred by the community included Yetis and Pioneers.

Alumni, residents and students from the two districts are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that seeks to overturn the mascot law. Federal district court and the 10th Circuit Court both denied an injunction that would have put the lawsuit filed by Mountain States Legal Foundation on hold.

Erin Erhardt, a Mountain States attorney, said Thursday that the plaintiffs have asked for a summary judgment, and the state’s response is due next week.

Districts and schools that were deemed compliant with the law on Thursday and removed from the list facing penalties are:

  • Sanford School District (San Luis Valley) elementary and junior/senior high schools, which switched from the Indians to the Thundering Mustangs
  • Mesa Valley School District’s Central High School is retaining its Warriors nickname with a new simple W logo
  • St. Vrain School District’s Frederick High School has switched from the Warriors to the Golden Eagles 
  • Weldon Valley School District (northeast Colorado) is retaining the Warriors nickname for its two schools and using a W logo
  • Campo School District (southeast Colorado) is switching from the Warriors nickname to the Patriots, which its two schools use in its sports’ co-op
  • Pueblo County School District’s Avondale Elementary School has switched from its Apache Indians mascot to the All Stars
  • Colorado Springs School District’s Community Prep School has removed all Warrior images

The CCIA board announced Thursday that it will provide another work session April 15 for schools that want to discuss their mascot changes.

UPDATE: This story was updated March 11, 2022, at 10:15 a.m. to reflect that Eaton School District has been removed from the list and to add information provided by the superintendent of schools.


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