Board of Education votes to remove Cowboy and Indian mascots at Hills and Valley

Board member Arnold Scher made a motion to remove the mascots after a nearly unanimous show of support from the public during the meeting.


Stephen Schmidt

Pascack Hills’ athletic field, with “Cowboys” lettered on the right. The Board voted to remove the nickname along with Valley’s mascot, the Indian.

[Editor’s note: The reporting in this article contributed to coverage by other news sources accessible here. The Trailblazer encourages community members to share their thoughts in the comments or by emailing the writer at [email protected]]

At their virtual meeting on Monday, the Pascack Valley Regional High School District Board of Education voted to remove the nickname of Pascack Hills, the Cowboy, and the mascot of Pascack Valley, the Indian, and assign new names at a later date in a “thoughtful and expeditious manner.”

The unanimous vote, which decided on both mascots at once, came after two hours of comments from the public, where dozens of members of the Hills and Valley community argued primarily against the use of the Indian as Valley’s mascot because of its racist connotations. Board member Arnold Scher proposed a motion to remove the mascots after the nearly unanimous show of support from the public.

Superintendent Erik Gundersen, who presided over the Board meeting, tweeted afterwards that he was “so proud of @PVOneSpirit, the students, staff, community members and Board members of @PVRHSD!”

The Board is planning to outline its next steps in regards to the changes at its upcoming retreat this Thursday. This includes how the new names will be chosen and how students’, teachers’, and community members’ feedback will be considered. It released the following statement on June 23:

At the Pascack Valley Regional High School District Board of Education meeting on June 22, the Board voted to remove the “Cowboy” and “Indian” as the Pascack Hills and Pascack Valley High Schools’ respective mascots. This decision was in response to ongoing presentations and discussions with students, faculty, staff, and administration regarding how such mascots are not inline with the district goal of equity and inclusivity. The Pascack Valley Regional High School District stands against racism, fostering an environment where no one is persecuted or marginalized. Our intent is to educate our district community on the mutual contributions of all races, genders, religions, and cultures accepting, respecting, and learning from one another. In the coming year, we look forward to soliciting the input of students, staff, and community members as we work to identify new mascots that will promote the values of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District. We applaud the efforts of our entire district community in working to bring us closer to this goal and we are committed to continuing this work.The Board of Education

Members of Valley’s One Spirit Club, the Hills-Valley equity team, and Hills’ Human Rights League shared their thoughts in addition to alumni of both Hills and Valley. Teachers and administrators such as Charleen Schwartzman, Hills’ incoming assistant principal, and Dr. Mark Russo, the district’s mathematics supervisor, also commented.

Two hours of public comments

“The point of a mascot is to promote inclusivity and belonging. It is time to change the mascot,” Schwartzman said, echoing previous comments made by other members of the public. “The Cowboy is in no way free of bias, as it excludes women and people of color. Let’s choose a mascot that we can all be proud of.”

Schwartzman, like other administrators, did not have a say in the Board’s vote.

Russo, who is a Woodcliff Lake resident, said that he has “heard about” the “pain that can be caused when individuals fail to understand, appreciate, and honor the experiences of those who are different from them.”

“Each of these stories [I’ve heard are] truly heartbreaking, but they are all emblematic to see, value, and seek to learn from those that are different,” he continued.

Kenneth Ralph, a Board member, argued in favor of changing both the Indian and the Cowboy mascot.

We shouldn’t have nicknames that are in contrast to each other; we should have something that unifies our district and that shares we have mutual goals between our two high schools.

— Kenneth Ralph, Board of Education member

“There was a perception of rivalry… We shouldn’t have nicknames that are in contrast to each other; we should have something that unifies our district and that shares we have mutual goals between our two high schools,” he said.

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, “Cowboys and Indians” is a “children’s game involving mock pursuits, gunfights, and killings as though between cowboys and American Indians.”

Leah Jerome, who co-advises the One Spirit Club at Valley, said that the Indian mascot “teaches our community that stereotyping is acceptable.” Jerome took her students to a Native reservation in South Dakota last year, where one club member said they were too ashamed to bring any Valley gear.

Several Valley alumni echoed similar thoughts, saying they were embarrassed to tell their friends about the mascot. One alumni said her roommate audibly gasped upon seeing her Indian gear; others said they were ashamed to attend sports games during their time at Valley because of what they described as racially insensitive chants.

One member of the public said he was indifferent either way and that students should vote on what the mascots should be changed to.

Petitions, protests, and local politicians against Board’s decision

Many Hills students, as well as students from other schools, expressed disappointment in the decision, calling the district “soft.” One student started a petition in favor of reversing the decision; it has received more than 1,000 signatures.

On June 23, Pascack Hills alumni held a protest along with students and community members against the removal in Hills’ parking lot; participants held signs calling for defunding the Board of Education, waved the American flag, and unfurled a banner in support of President Trump patched to say “Make Hills great again.”

Stephen Schmidt

Incoming principal Tim Wieland and Schwartzman arrived on the scene, engaging with the protesters. Many emphasized the yet-to-be-determined cost of replacing the mascots, including Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali.

It’s a fact that native Americans were settled in this area, and our town especially is being studied by academic scholars, making headlines and proving that Indian heritage is deeply rooted in this region.

— Montvale Mayor Mike Ghassali

Ghassali stated on Facebook that he is “very disappointed” with the Board of Education, defending the use of the Indian as Valley’s mascot because “Indian heritage is deeply rooted in this region.”

However, according to a member of the One Spirit Club at the Board meeting, only one Native American student was part of the school district in the past five years. This statistic is supported by enrollment data from the New Jersey Department of Education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were zero Native Americans living in Montvale according to a 2019 estimate; Native Americans made up 0.6%, 0.2%, and 0.1% of the populations in River Vale, Hillsdale, and Woodcliff Lake, respectively.

Ghassali also said that “now we have to pay to rebrand the school at a likely cost in the six figures.”

District’s ongoing efforts toward “inclusivity and equity”

However, administrators emphasized that the mascot removal was only one step in meeting the district’s goals. This school year, the Board established a district goal to “advance the work of inclusivity and equity throughout the district. Expand institutional awareness, establish stronger connections with marginalized groups, and engage students and regional partners.”

With the hard work of One Spirit and the Human Rights League, we are trying to make good on a promise that we would work towards inclusivity and equity.

— Charleen Schwartzman, Hills' incoming assistant principal

Referencing this goal at the Board meeting, Schwartzman said “we have work to do to give voices to everyone at the table. We are always looking for ways to grow; we want to do what is in the best interests of our kids and those around us. With the hard work of One Spirit and the Human Rights League, we are trying to make good on a promise that we would work towards inclusivity and equity.”

The vote came amid weeks of unrest in the wake of George Floyd, a Black man, being killed at the hands of white police officers. In a demonstration organized by the equity team, students and faculty wrote the names of African Americans killed by police in Hills’ and Valley’s parking lots in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Originally created to analyze data from a school-wide climate survey, the team of Hills and Valley students is now planning a protest march in coordination with Hills alumni in Woodcliff Lake this Saturday.