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Request to Ban Indian Mascots Dismissed by Office for Civil Rights

The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights has dismissed a complaint from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights that sought to ban the use of American Indian mascots and imagery in K-12 schools that receive federal funds.

The Michigan civil rights department originally filed its complaint back in February, claiming that the use of American Indian imagery denied equal rights to American Indian students. A supporting argument from the department's director of law and policy cited research that suggests such imagery results in "actual harm" to current and future American Indian students.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, K-12 schools that receive federal funding are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. OCR's job in mascot complaints, as described in its response to the Michigan civil rights department, is to determine whether the allegations "are sufficient to constitute a racially hostile environment." OCR defines such an environment as "one in which racially harassing conduct takes place that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent to limit a student's ability to participate in or benefit from the recipient's programs or services."

When OCR asked the Michigan civil rights department to identify specific students who had been harmed by American Indian mascots, the department only cited research as the basis of its complaint.

"You did not provide to OCR any specific examples of race-based incidents nor identify any students or individuals who have suffered specific harm because of the alleged discrimination at any of the named school districts," wrote Catherine Criswell, director of OCR's Cleveland branch, in the letter dated May 29.

As a result, OCR determined that the provided evidence wasn't sufficient enough to begin an investigation, and thus dismissed the complaint.

The Michigan civil rights department received notice of the dismissal on Friday, according to the Associated Press, and is considering whether to appeal the decision.

"MDCR believes the evidence is clear that students are being hurt by the continued used of American Indian mascots and imagery," the Michigan department said in a statement to the AP. "We will continue to look for ways to ensure all students are equally protected."

If the Michigan civil rights department appeals the ruling successfully, it could end up being costly. Two bills currently sitting in state House committees would force the department to foot the bill for any schools forced to change their American Indian mascots. The legislation would create a $3 million "school mascot reimbursement fund," taken from the department's budget, to cover the cost of changes to mascots, uniforms, billboards, gym resurfacing, and other expenses.

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