Donna Fann-Boyle says she’s quarreled with her neighbors on social media, been bullied and threatened and called names like “half-breed wagon-burner” during the six years she’s pressed the Neshaminy School District to drop its nickname of “Redskins,” which she considers a slur.
Next week, Fann-Boyle – a 59-year-old Middletown Township woman who is of Cherokee descent – finally gets her day in court as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission comes to Bucks County for at least a week of public hearings on its legal action challenging Neshaminy’s traditional nickname and its Native American imagery as offensive.
Fann-Boyle, who calls both the duration of the fight and the district’s vehemence in opposing any name change “ridiculous,” said she’s looking forward to testifying and arguing that “you can’t just be indoctrinating kids in this stuff and ignoring the voice of a minority.”
Advocates hope the hearings and the PHRC’s intervention can bring closure to the controversy that’s riven the sprawling 8,600-student district in Lower Bucks County for much of the 2010s -- mirroring disputes from coast-to-coast in a number of the estimated 2,000 or so school districts that still retain nicknames or mascots based on American Indian culture.
The hearings by the PHRC are slated for Jan. 7-11 – Monday through Friday of next week – beginning at 9 a.m. in the Charles E. Rollins Center at Bucks County Community College in Newtown. The state commission said the hearings could continue on Jan. 14 and 15 if necessary. If the commission finds there is discrimination, it has a broad range of remedies it can impose, including ordering the district to change its nickname and requiring training for school board members, teachers, and staff, said Chad Lassiter, executive director of the PHRC. The district could appeal to Commonwealth Court.
Lassiter said using the Redskins name “has repercussions to a cohort already experiencing other forms of discrimination.” It didn’t matter if there were no American Indian students at the school, he said, since the case was a “teachable moment on colonialism" for all students.
Commission members are expected to hear not only local American Indians and their allies who consider Neshaminy’s longtime nickname to be racist but also community residents who’ve defended the term Redskins as a shared local tradition that they insist doesn’t insult indigenous people but honors their bravery.
In 2015, two years after a complaint brought by Fann-Boyle while her son, now 20, was a student at Neshaminy High School, the PHRC found probable cause that the nickname violated the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. But in the fall of that year, Fann-Boyle withdrew her case because of the increasing vitriol aimed at her and her family.
“Things started to get really, really nasty, really bad,” she said, adding that she also wanted to spare her son, who had dealt with the controversy throughout his high school career.
Shortly thereafter, the PHRC initiated its own case against the school district.
The dispute also made national news when district officials battled the high school’s student-run paper, the Playwickian, over a decision by student editors to not use the nickname in print.
The Neshaminy School District issued a statement last month that the “district denies the allegations in PHRC’s lawsuit and, through its counsel, is defending the case, as it did in the 2013 case. The district contends that PHRC’s allegations are unfounded. ..."
Neshaminy School Board member Stephen Pirritano of Feasterville, a vocal advocate for keeping the nickname, said he plans to testify that the civil rights agency is overstepping its bounds. He said Redskins has wide community support and noted that Fann-Boyle’s son had graduated and there is no longer a local complainant.
“The community feels like they’re being singled out for political purposes, so people from a bureaucratic agency can put their stamp on something,” Pirritano said. He argued that American Indian “culture has been honored and protected since the inception of the school district.”
Clyde Bellecourt, cofounder of both the American Indian Movement and the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, said Neshaminy is another battlefield in a fight that’s gone on for more than 40 years, not just in high schools but at state universities, not to mention the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
“I don’t think they would do this to another race of human beings,” said Bellecourt, who said as many as 2,500 schools have shed native nicknames as a result of activism over those decades. He complained that fans of the NFL’s Redskins “start yelling, ‘Scalp him!’ dressed in chicken feathers and put war paint on their bodies -- they don’t know what war paint is.”
For Mabel Negrete, the cofounder of a Philadelphia group called Indigenous 215, formed in the wake of the 2016 protests against an oil pipeline by North Dakota’s Standing Rock tribe, the state hearing is an opportunity to argue that supporters of the Neshaminy nickname are misinformed about the history of American Indians. That includes the Lenni Lenape tribe, which was once prevalent in the Bucks area and gave Neshaminy Creek its name.
"For them to be using ‘the Redskins’ … it is an appropriation and it’s misguided and it’s insulting.” said Negrete, whose ancestors include indigenous people from Chile.
In her opinion, Negrete added: “The name is just incorrect. Nobody has red skin. That’s just plain racist.”
Barbara Simmons, head of the Langhorne-based Bucks County Peace Center, said her group has been supporting Fann-Boyle not just in the effort to change the nickname but also against the ensuing bullying and harassment of her family and her allies in the cause.
“If this was an anti-Semitic mascot there’s no way this would continue,” she noted. “But since it’s a Native American mascot it’s OK because there are only one or two voices?”
Meanwhile, the frequent sparring on a Neshaminy Facebook site and elsewhere on social media has revved up. Fann-Boyle said she and some of her allies were booted from the Facebook group recently for commenting on an article claiming the “Redskins” nickname should be considered an honor.
She hopes next week’s hearing can bring a resolution at last but vowed to keep fighting no matter what happens. “If things don’t go the right way,” she said, “we’ll move forward and it won’t be over until it’s over.”