By Rob DeStefano
On Nov. 17, and subsequent to a judicial ruling against a New York public school district, the New York State Education Department sent a memo communicating a “need to ensure that district mascots, team names and logos are nondiscriminatory.” This memo closed with an unfortunate edict: “Should a district fail to affirmatively commit to replacing its Native American team name, logo and/or imagery by the end of the 2022-23 school year, it may be in willful violation of the Dignity Act. The penalties for such a violation include the removal of school officers and the withholding of state aid.”
In response, I contacted NYS Commissioner of Education Betty Rosa and introduced several preliminary questions and recommendations, including the imperative that time be afforded to make this a teachable moment — both a cultural and business education opportunity. The commissioner agreed with the academic opportunity. She recognized more information for affected school districts was needed, and these details are expected soon.
Throughout our conversation, Commissioner Rosa’s responses to my questions continued to incorporate the term “reasonable.” The dialogue yielded some insights and elevated some concerns that have been topics among our community members during these intervening weeks:
By the end of this school year (June 2023), affected districts shall provide an attestation that they intend to comply with changes to ensure nondiscriminatory logos/mascots/names, etc.
Logo development and implementation will be done in a reasonable time frame. Subsequent to our conversation, NYSED has indicated implementation by the end of the 2024-25 school year.
Logos on gymnasium floors and turf fields were greeted with a “reasonable” replacement. I interpret this to mean the turf field logo would be replaced when the turf is next due for wear replacement, as anything that accelerated financial burden on the district or our residents, I view as “unreasonable.” However, my interpretation awaits confirmation in the forthcoming details from NYSED.
Existing logos/names in question could be maintained if there is an existing agreement with local tribes to preserve these artifacts. As recently as 2020, local Native American leaders have not favored our logo. Further discussion should always be an option.
It was not explicitly affirmed whether our district naming was at risk. However, “Comsewogue” is a vocabulary word — not a direct name of a Native American person or peoples — and “Warriors” is a generic term originating from Anglo-French and used ubiquitously across cultures. These origins suggest reasonable, nondiscriminatory terms.
Going at least as far back as my elementary experience, Comsewogue School District has taught the history of our community, including the Setalcott Native Americans and the translation of the local Native American term “Comsewogue” — or its historic spelling “Cumsewogue” — as “an intersection of many paths,” or “where many paths meet.” Perhaps the exploration of this history could be expanded through our problem-based learning curriculum. It might include an opportunity to meet present-day local Native American leaders willing to share their insights on topics of interest, but I will yield to our educators on best practice implementation.
From a business education perspective, I advised the state commissioner that business logos take more than six months to change — let alone a logo with strong emotional ties. It would require time to engage and collaborate with community stakeholders, then a period of research to determine the design of a new logo. Again, our problem-based curriculum offers an opportunity here: To learn the process of brand building and brand value, and the opportunity to perform the research to understand the emotions beneath the surface of Warrior Pride. Here again, I will yield to our educators for the creation of compelling learning experiences.
As clarification is received from the state, the school district will keep all stakeholders informed. However, it is always helpful to be prepared. Today’s Comsewogue students are the stewards of the Comsewogue Warrior, its appearance and the values associated with growing up in our community. I could not imagine a change of the current logo that isn’t led by them, built on perspectives from and backed by all our supporting stakeholders.
Our students are the standard-bearers of today’s Warrior in human and artistic representation. And as envisaged by our students, Comsewogue’s logo will be an intersection of ideals and imagery.
Rob DeStefano serves as trustee for the Comsewogue School District Board of Education. The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Comsewogue School District or its Board of Education.