By Andrea Lorenz
HOUSTON (Reuters) - The Houston Independent School District on Thursday banned team names and mascots that depict Native American culture, responding to growing public sentiment that such race-based references are offensive.
The school district is one of the largest in the United States, so its decision could influence other school systems that are reconsidering team and mascot names that may be viewed as inappropriate.
The Houston school board unanimously approved, with one abstention, a new policy that prohibits the use of race-based team names and mascots.
The move will change the mascots of 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.
The use of race-based team names and mascots came under scrutiny over the past year with a campaign to pressure the National Football League's Washington Redskins to change their name.
During the last several years, school districts throughout the United States have changed their mascots and nicknames in response to a growing public sentiment against using depictions of Native Americans and minorities to promote sports teams.
In California, Coachella Valley High School, where sports teams are known as the "Arabs," has come under fire from an Arab-American rights group that says its mascot is an offensive caricature.
But in Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker signed into law in December a measure making it tougher for those who object to race-based mascots and sports team names to force a change at their school districts.
Walker said he signed the bill because he was concerned with legislating free speech and that a better alternative would be to educate people about how certain phrases and symbols may be offensive.
(Editing by Brendan O'Brien and Eric Walsh)