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Pennsylvania Community Divided Over School District's ‘Redskins’ Mascot

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission may have the final say in determining whether a high school northeast of Philadelphia can keep its mascot.

The commission, a government agency tasked with enforcing state laws that prohibit discrimination, is investigating a complaint against Neshaminy High School over its mascot, the Redskins.

The school, named after a Lenape word that means “where two waters meet,” for generations has used the mascot and its accompanying image, a profile of an American Indian in a war bonnet. The legacy dates to the 1920s, district officials said.

“This area was originally settled by Indians,” said Chris Stanley, community relations coordinator for the Neshaminy School District. “The mascot was a nod to that heritage.”

Courtesy Jackson Haines

This statue of a Lenape man is displayed at Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania. The school claims its mascot honors the area’s Lenape heritage.

But when one woman approached the district and asked for the mascot to be changed, she ignited a quarrel that quickly garnered national attention and put at odds the high school newspaper, student body, administrators and the community. Donna Boyle, who is Cherokee and Choctaw, said she asked the school board 10 times to change the mascot, but to no avail.

In September 2013, Boyle, whose son attends Neshaminy, filed a complaint with the state Human Relations Commission. She claims her son is being subjected to “pervasive and regular” harassment because of the “continual daily verbal and visual use of the term “Redskins.”

RELATED: One Woman’s Fight Against a Pennsylvania High School’s Mascot

The Harrisburg-based commission in January 2015 asked the school to “cease and desist” from using the word and gave it 90 days to change the mascot. The school is now appealing those terms, Boyle said.

A spokeswoman for the commission couldn’t comment because the investigation is ongoing. She said if the two parties don’t come to an agreement, a public hearing will be scheduled and the commission will issue a final order. The school district also declined to comment on the investigation.

Meanwhile, Boyle’s battle gained additional traction when editors of the high school newspaper, the Playwickian, made a bold statement of their own: to ban the word from the 3,000-circulation monthly publication.

“Once we did a little bit of research, we decided it wasn’t really our place to decide the definition of a word,” said Gillian McGoldrick, a senior at Neshaminy and editor in chief of the Playwickian. “Especially when it’s hurting so many Native Americans.”

In the fall of 2013, the paper published an editorial explaining its decision and alerting the community that the word would be edited out of any news, opinion or advertising content. School administrators pushed back, issuing a directive that overturned the ban.

“They said we didn’t have the authority to enforce it,” said Jackson Haines, a senior and managing editor of the Playwickian. “If someone chose to write the word, we were forced to run it.”

Community members and fellow students also lashed out at the newspaper, Haines said. Editors were targeted in social media attacks and deep chasms opened among the 2,600 students at Neshaminy and in a community that has been called an athletic powerhouse.

Courtesy Jackson Haines

A banner supporting the Neshaminy Redskins hangs inside the high school.

The Playwickian, named after a Lenape word meaning “place of birds,” gets much of its content from student writers. It also relies on community advertisers, many of whom are fans of the mascot.

During the spring of 2014, the school board proposed a policy that allowed editors to remove the word from news articles but required them to publish it in advertisements or letters to the editor.

“They saw it as a free speech issue and a way to promote discussion,” Stanley said.

Editors took a stand against what they saw as infringement on their right to form policy, and in June 2014 refused to publish a letter to the editor that included the word.

That action led administrators to suspend McGoldrick for a month from her position as editor in chief and dock $1,200 from the newspaper’s bank account. It also meant a two-day suspension without pay for newspaper adviser Tara Huber and introduction of a new policy that allows administrators to review the publication before it goes to press.

With just months to go before graduation, McGoldrick and Haines said they will continue to challenge the administration and fight for the rights of the student press. They also plan to continue speaking out against the mascot.

“I think that we definitely made a splash at the high school,” McGoldrick said. “On a national level, with the mascot, I think that we continued the conversation. We were on a smaller scale, but we brought to light what happens when a community gets so attached to something.”