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Colorado schools with “Thunderbird” mascot set to get one-year reprieve from $25,000 monthly fines

About 24 schools were supposed to get rid of derogatory mascots by June 2022. But any other schools told to jettison mascots will have one year to come into compliance.

A painted effigy of a Thunderbird overlooks a reading nook inside Johnson Elementary School Tuesday morning April 12 2022, in Montrose Colorado. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado schools that could face $25,000 monthly fines over “Thunderbird” mascots are poised to be granted a one-year reprieve to come into compliance with a 2021 state law banning American Indian nicknames. 

The one-year delay, tucked into a school finance bill working its way through the legislature, applies only to schools added after 2021 to the state’s noncompliance list.

It offers a more “realistic timeframe” for schools to scrub their campuses of recently banned mascots before fines kick in, said Monument Republican state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a prime sponsor of the school finance bill who introduced the change.

Lundeen’s amendment comes after the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs last year published a list of more than two dozen public schools that must get rid of their American Indian mascots before June 1, 2022, or face fines under Senate Bill 116, which passed last year. In April, the commission signaled it might add Thunderbirds to the list of derogatory mascots — leaving another seven public schools unsure if they will need to jettison their mascots before June.

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Those schools could find out at the commission’s meeting on May 19. 

Some said that would not leave them enough time — just two weeks — to get rid of any imagery of the Thunderbird mascot, which refers to a mythical bird important to several tribes.  

“If you’re going to put us on there this late in the day, give us a little time to make the changes,” David Crews, superintendent of Sangre de Cristo School District in Mosca, told The Colorado Sun in April. The district adopted the Thunderbirds mascot when two San Luis Valley districts merged in 1960. “This puts us between a rock and a hard place — we’re not on the list now but do we start making changes? If we don’t respond now and we get on there we don’t have a lot of time for compliance.”

Twelve of the original two dozen public schools had not covered up their mascots as of mid-March. Those schools could still face fines starting next month; the amendment now gives schools one year from the time they’re notified to come into compliance. 

Lundeen said some schools knew their mascots would be banned under state law, either because they were a blatant appropriation of American Indian imagery or because they were named in discussions of Senate Bill 116. Others, like those with Thunderbird mascots, may have been caught unaware that they would need to cover up trophies, remove banners or change school uniforms to conceal Thunderbird images.

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“Those schools would have less than a month to cover everything — I just thought that was really unfair because they were not in the first campaign,” said state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill. 

McLachlan, who supports the amendment and backed the 2021 bill banning American Indian mascots in public schools, said some schools’ Thunderbird mascots were a reference to the U.S. Air Force demonstration squadron while others used Indian American imagery.

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“At first, people were saying (schools on the list) were wrong, they need to be punished right now. But… no school can afford that,” McLachlan said. “We have to give them some grace.” 

Drews, the superintendent, said he hopes the district is not added to the commission’s list. But if they are, he’s grateful the amendment could give them a year to make changes rather than 12 days. 

The amendment comes as Colorado’s geographic renaming board has also begun the process of scrubbing a Native American slur from 28 sites across the state.

McLachlan said the 2021 mascot bill was “decades in the making,” and is aimed at removing derogatory or stereotypical mascots, a change tribes had long requested. She cited examples like Tomahawks and “Savages.”

“We just decided to get together and say ‘Let’s not do this anymore. Let’s help them out,’” McLachlan said. 

The governor’s office — which handles questions for the commission — supports the one-year delay, according to Conor Cahill, a Gov. Jared Polis spokesman.  

The school finance bill passed the Senate Friday. It passed the House — without the “Thunderbird”-related amendment — last month.

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.


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