NESHAMINY >> After more than six year of arduous investigation, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) has now ordered Neshaminy to cease using the logos and images for its sports teams and mascots that “negatively stereotype” Native Americans.
But in an apparent compromise, the commission is allowing the school district to still use the terms “Redskins” and ‘Skins,” as long as students are made aware that these names could be offensive to Native Americans and be a discriminatory characterization.
During the regular public meeting Nov. 25 in Harrisburg, the majority of the 11-member PHRC voted to accept the earlier recommendations of its hearing examiner and issue a 62-page final order in the case after attempts at working out a compromise between both sides had proved unsuccessful.
Commission Chairman Joel Bolstein, who agreed with the hearing examiner’s findings, stated that the term “Redskins” is offensive to Native Americans.
“What was acceptable long ago, may no longer be acceptable, this is one such instance,” he said.
Under state law, the commission’s decision carries the weight of a court order that either side can appeal to Commonwealth Court, which has jurisdiction over state agencies.
Under the terms of the commission’s final order, Neshaminy now has 90 days to “cease and desist” using all logos and imagery which “negatively stereotype Native Americans.”
What exactly is a negative stereotype will be determined on a case by case basis.
However, at the same time the commission decided to allow a statue of a Leni Lenape tribal member to remain in the high school.
The order then tackles the issue of educating students about the use of the term “Redskins” and “Skins.” “At this time, the use of the term Redskins shall be permitted so long as the requisite educational information is provided to District students to ensure that students do not form the idea that it is acceptable to stereotype any group,” the order reads.
As long as the school district still uses the “Redskins” name, school officials are required to continuously file updates with the PHRC on how Neshaminy is adhering to these educational mandates.
Native-Americans groups will be allowed into the schools to explain to students how the terms might perpetuate negative and discriminatory stereotypes.
The school district, which has more than 8,500 students in 11 schools, has 30 days to comply with this section of the final order.
On Monday, Dec. 2 the school board responded, voting 9-0 to appeal the PHRC ruling to Commonwealth Court.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Michael Hardiman, who concurred in part and dissented in part with the hearing examiner’s recommendations, maintained that commission should have gone further and prohibited the actual use of the term “Redskins.”
He said that that the school district had indeed violated the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) by using the term and images.
Hardiman also acknowledged that the “inappropriate stereotypical use of the logos and imagery of Native Americans ... negatively impacts all students within the District and influences their perspective of Native Americans in a negative way.”
And Hardiman contended that the term “Redskin ... for a number of years, has been recognized as a racial slur.”
While agreeing with the commission’s majority that the logos and images should be removed, he concluded that the use of the word “Redskin” should also be outright banned because it's an unlawful discrimination under the Act.
The long-awaited decision by the commission, which is part of the governor’s office, ends several years of investigation which had included a week-long session of public testimony earlier this year at the Bucks County Community College’s Newtown campus.
In his findings, hearing examiner Carl Summerson had recommended that that each of the logos must be reviewed independently to determine whether “they depict a negative stereotype.”
That determination is in the commission’s final order.
He had also written that the school district had failed to provide non-Native-American students with the information needed to prevent the stereotyping of native peoples.
It was this opinion and recommendations that the majority of the commission upheld.
In 2015, the PHRC’s investigators and legal staff had initially determined that Neshaminy High School’s use of “Redskin” and “Redskins” was “racially derogatory” and created a “hostile educational environment.”
According to the commission’s non-public ‘Finding of Probable Cause’ viewed at the time by BucksLocalNews.com, the case was deemed to have merit.
The school district was asked to stop using the terms and start immediately looking for “suitable, non-discriminatory names and mascots for its teams and schools.”
The original complaint had been filed by Langhorne resident Donna Boyle, who is of Native-American ancestry and a long-time opponent of the high school’s use of the “Redskins” moniker.
In late 2013, Boyle, whose late father was a Cherokee from Oklahoma, had filed the complaint for herself and her son, who at the time was a Neshaminy High School student.
It claimed that the use of the “Redskins” name and images discriminated against their heritage.
In its initial determination, the commission's staff agreed, finding that the use created a “hostile educational environment” for Boyle’s son in violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Two years later, at her request, Boyle and her son were removed as the named complainants, and instead the commission itself took over that role.
Boyle, who attended the commission meeting when the final order was issued, said that although she was “shocked” that the decision still allowed the school district to use the term “Redskin,” she was still “very happy that they were told to remove all the native logos and images.”
But Boyle wondered that in light of the PHRC decision what representation the district will now choose, if any, for its logos and mascots.
She also noted that any education about the term "Redskin" must begin with elementary school students.
“The education to teach the students the truth about native people and the actual truth about the term ‘Redskin’ must be measurable,” Boyle explained, “There is a lot of work for the district to do to be able to keep the term.”
She continued: “This is not a total win for Neshaminy. It’s going to be hard to jump through the hoops that the commission has laid out. This is going to be a true ethical challenge for them.”
The school district hired a separate legal team to fight the complaint, arguing that use the sports teams’ names were justified because they are was rooted in pride, not prejudice, and that they are not intended to be insulting or demeaning.
For decades, the name has graced Neshaminy High School’s sports teams and mascots, and is considered a tradition by many residents, students and alumni, some of whom have spoken out at school board meetings urging the district to retain their use.
The Neshaminy “Redskins” dispute has also been a battle cry of the high school’s student newspaper, The Playwickian, whose editorial staff overwhelmingly voted in late 2013 to forever ban the word from its pages.
That sparked a contentious battle between the newspaper and school district officials, resulting in a month-long suspension of the then-student editor Gillian McGoldrick, as well as a two-day suspension for teacher Tara Huber who advised the publication.
In response to the newspaper’s ban on the terms, the school district approved a policy allowing the terms to be excised from news articles, but to remain in op-ed pieces.
Other school districts around the country, as well as in Pennsylvania, have already voluntarily changed similar team names and mascots without having to pursue legal remedies.