For 83 years, Coachella Valley High School has rallied behind a mascot with a snarling face, a hooked nose, a heavy beard and wearing a headscarf — the campus' beloved Arab.
The image, inspired by the Middle East ambiance of Coachella Valley's desert landscape of date palms and communities named Mecca and Oasis, was displayed in school murals, on the basketball court and at half-time shows featuring a belly dancer who entertains a student clad in "Arab" garb.
Now, in a compromise with offended Arab Americans, the Coachella Valley Unified School District in Riverside County has dumped the controversial mascot and belly dancer, but held on to its team nickname, Arabs, according to one official. Both sides are also in negotiations over a more benign "Arab" logo.
The mascot and belly dancer were absent from the sidelines when the Coachella Valley High football team defeated Rancho Mirage High 26-7 in its season opener on Friday night.
The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a civil rights group in Washington, D.C., launched a letter-writing campaign in November to get rid of the images on the grounds they enforce negative stereotypes of an entire ethnic group and millions of U.S. citizens. The group's research showed that Coachella Valley High was the only campus in the nation with a demeaning image of an Arab for a mascot.
The school became a target of criticism—and some local support—after the committee's objections were reported by Al Jazeera America, the U.S. branch of the Qatar-based news network, and several national news organizations.
School district Superintendent Darryl Adams and high school Principal Victor Uribe were unavailable for comment Monday.
But Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director for the anti-discrimination committee, said, "After dialogue with school officials and student leaders — and consultation with the Justice Department — there was agreement that changes were needed. So the mascot was retired. While the logo is still on the gymnasium floor and murals on campus buildings, we understand that it's a cash-strapped school district and they promised to take care of that in time."
Ayoub said, "The school district did not intentionally try to stereotype our community. We respect their ties to the Middle East and the Arab world, and the history behind them."
Coachella High Assistant Principal Sergio Torres declined to comment on the matter except to say, "Our superintendent plans to make an announcement later this week."
Similar campaigns have brought about changes with sports teams and other schools with Native American and devil mascots.
The committee is currently working with school district officials "to find a way to capitalize on their interest in the Arab world," Ayoud said. "For example, we hope to help them organize language courses and cultural exchange programs."