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Berks County school district sued over club that’s trying to end use of mascot

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
A sign painted by members of the Retire the Raider school club

 Photo courtesy of Sloane Wolfe

A sign painted by members of the Retire the Raider school club

A high school student from a Berks County district is part of a First Amendment rights lawsuit that alleges Twin Valley School District won’t officially recognize a club that is calling for the removal of a mascot based on a stereotype of a Native American person.

The costume for the mascot, known as “The Raider,” includes a large head of a Native American warrior in a headdress, with its arched eyebrows depicting an angry expression.

Tenth-grader Sloane Wolfe said she, her sister and a group of other students had been trying to establish a club called “Retire the Raider,” but have been consistently met with pushback from the school administrators. 

ACLU Pennsylvania

A group of students organized a club against Twin Valley School District’s mascot, “The Raider.”

Wolfe and her mother are plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, which claims the district violated the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act by not allowing the club to have the same amenities as other clubs, which include the ability to hold regular meetings in school, equal access to sources of funding, the ability to be featured on the district’s webpage and the right to advertise club meetings, events, and field trips. 

“Unfortunately, this was a very long and drawn out process, and we were struggling to become an official school club,” Wolfe said. “We developed a petition with over 5,000 signatures, and many people in the student body were interested in assisting. However, we faced severe backlash from our district. All we ever wanted was to make our school a better place.”

Removing the mascot is not the club’s only purpose, Wolfe said. They want to educate people  about Native American history and culture, and promote cultural competency. She said that, based on conversations she has had, many people think The Raider is meant to honor Native American history.

“We’ve had a mascot that is not historically accurate. Several members of our community are miseducated. They don’t know the true truth, because in reality, Native Americans did not raid anybody’s land. It was the white colonists who raided their land,” Wolfe said.

Sara Rose, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and an attorney on the case, said the district claims the students’ club is not operating according to guidelines because they don’t have a faculty adviser.

The Equal Access Act makes it illegal for public secondary schools that receive federal funds to limit the use of district facilities to school clubs, or deny equal access to resources that similar clubs have. But the act, created in 1984 to protect access to school facilities by religious clubs, says districts can’t require religious clubs to have an adviser because that would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from making a law that respects the “establishment” of a religion.

“We’re saying if you can’t require religious clubs to have a faculty adviser, and you can’t require non-religious clubs to have one either,” Rose said.

The lawsuit also claims that the district tried to interfere with the club’s attempts to find a faculty adviser.

The district’s superintendent Patrick Winters said the district “denies any wrongdoing” and that “it encourages all its students to exercise their rights.”

“The District is evaluating strategies for fighting these claims. We look forward to our day in court,” Winters said in a statement posted on the district’s website.

Since federal lawsuits typically take a long time to wind their way through the courts, Wolfe and her mother have filed for immediate relief and are asking the district to allow the club to operate officially and to not require them to have an adviser. Rose said she expects a response to their immediate relief filing before the end of the year.

“This is not a good look for our school having a mascot of a minority race, and I want our school to be a welcoming environment for everyone, no matter their race, no matter their identity. There should be no hatred and no ignorance in a learning environment,” Wolfe said.

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