NESHAMINY >> The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) executive director Chad Dion Lassiter said that the Neshaminy School District should outright ban the use of “Redskins,” despite a commission ruling late last month permitting its limited use under certain stipulations.
The same day he made those comments, the Neshaminy School Board, as expected, decided to appeal the commission’s decision.
In a Dec. 2 prepared statement, Lassiter claimed the word “’Redskins’ is a racially demeaning term and should not be used anywhere, let alone in a school.”
At the regular PHRC meeting Nov. 25, commission members voted 7-1 to accept a hearing officer’s report which had said that “Redskins” could continue to be used as long as the district made substantiated efforts to make students aware that these names could be offensive to Native Americans, and be a discriminatory characterization.
At the same time, however, the PHRC had ordered Neshaminy to cease using the “stereotypical” logos and images of Native Americans for its sports teams and mascots.
In his statement, Lassiter said that the commission will enforce the order, but at the same time maintained that “the use of the word is as wrong and harmful as the use of the ‘N-word.’”
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.”
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.
The school district, which has more than 8,000 students in 11 schools, has 30 days to comply with this section of the final order.
Although he disagreed with the commission’s decision, Lassiter asserted that he is “committed to take our PHRC team to Neshaminy and work to heal the community.”
“The PHRC has committed to residents that they will hold a Social Justice Lecture Series, Town Hall and Talk Back sessions in Bucks County in the coming months,” his statement said.
Meanwhile, Neshaminy officials wasted little time in making their sentiments known.
At the school board’s Dec. 2 reorganization meeting, members unanimously voted to appeal the entire PHRC final order to Commonwealth Court.
In a 9-0 vote, the board passed a resolution directing its legal staff to go ahead with a court fight, no matter the future price tag.
It was not revealed how much the district has already spent on defending its position, nor how much this court appeal will cost.
“The Board of school Directors has vigorously denied the allegations that were the basis for the complaints filed in the PHRC case,” read the resolution.
It concluded that an appeal of the PHRC decision “is necessary to protect the District’s interest.”
Individual board members declined to specifically address the commission’s decision.
However, before the school board voted on the resolution, district solicitor John Torrente read a two-page statement, as part of the record, in order to explain the reasoning behind the resolution, and why the district decided to continue it legal battle.
His statement asserted that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has “continued to press unsubstantiated allegations of racism” against the school district.
Continuing, Torrente noted that the district takes issue with the PHRC singling out Neshaminy’s use of Native-Americans images and symbols by sports teams and mascots, and “strongly disagrees with how the PHRC has treated the district.”
“The District was demonized by the PHRC’s allegations, which falsely cast the District, and its community, in a highly negative light,” he stated.
According to the statement, the commission never sent an investigator to interview anyone in the district, and that the PHRC had issued a fact-finding complaint in 2015 which would have cost Neshaminy about $1 million to “alter facilities and programs” in order to comply with that directive.
Torrente continued by saying that during the public hearings earlier this year, the school district presented a “battery of witnesses” claiming that the district was “not engaged in any activity that was discriminatory or hostile towards Native American students or people.”
“The public should be aware that many schools in Pennsylvania use Native American team names (including Redskins) and imagery,” the statement said, “Yet the PHRC has spent six years, and presumably significant taxpayer supported resources, singling out Neshaminy and treating it as if it unique when it is not.”
The long-awaited decision by the commission last month had ended more than six 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 officer Carl Summerson had determined that that each of the logos must be reviewed independently to determine whether “they depict a negative stereotype.”
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 overwhelming majority of the commission upheld in its final order last month.
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 then non-public ‘Finding of Probable Cause,’ the case was deemed to have merit.
At that time, the school district was then asked to stop using the terms and start immediately looking for “suitable, non-discriminatory names and mascots for its teams and schools.”
The district had refused to comply with that probable cause finding.
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, filed the action 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 had agreed, finding that the use created a “hostile educational environment” for Boyle’s son in violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) which prohibits discriminatory conduct.
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.
The school district had 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.
Other districts around the country, as well as in Pennsylvania, have already voluntarily changed similar team names and mascots without having to pursue legal remedies.