By Andrea Lorenz
HOUSTON (Reuters) - The Houston school board gave preliminary approval on Thursday to a policy to stop using mascot names such as "Redskins" that reference Native American culture and have been called offensive by advocacy groups.
The Houston Independent School District is one of the largest in the United States and its decision could influence other school systems that are reconsidering mascot names that may be inappropriate. Another vote will be taken in January for final approval of the policy.
The use of ethnic team names and mascots came under new scrutiny this year with a campaign to pressure the National Football League's Washington Redskins to change their name.
Native Americans and others have long condemned the "Redskins" moniker as racist.
Two dozen people, including several Native Americans, spoke at Thursday's meeting, more than half of them supporting the removal of cultural references from mascot names.
"The Lamar High School Redskins mascot name is just the tip of the iceberg of the racial discrimination against my people here in America. I am a human being. I am not a mascot," said Steve Melendez, the president of the American Indian Genocide Museum in Houston. "If you want to honor me, teach the truth about genocide that took place here in Texas."
Should the board give final approval to the policy, four school mascots would be affected: The Lamar High School Redskins, the Hamilton Middle School Indians, the Welch Middle School Warriors and the Westbury High School Rebels. The "rebel" name has been seen as a reference to the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Those against the change told the board that the references to Native Americans should be seen as an homage, not an offense.
"The Lamar Redskin at our school is a symbol of honor, a symbol of pride that we hold so very proudly," said Keffus Falls, a Lamar High School student who created an online petition to keep the Redskins mascot that more than 1,000 current and former students signed.
"You will survive," Houston school board member Michael Lunceford told the crowd, adding that the name of the mascot of his East Texas high school was changed in 1972. "The mascot is not what makes the school. It's the people in the school."
Houston schools superintendent Terry Grier, who supports the change, said earlier on Thursday that it is inappropriate for schools to use mascots that represent people.
"We would never think of having the ‘Whitefaces,' the ‘Brownfaces,' or the ‘Brownskins' or the ‘Blackskins' as mascots," Grier said.
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Scott Malone, Gunna Dickson, Mary Wisniewski and Mohammad Zargham)