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Neshaminy School District can keep ‘Redskins’ name, but must educate students to prevent stereotypes, state commission says

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission also ordered the Bucks County school district to cease using "any and all logos and imagery in the Neshaminy High School that negatively stereotype Native Americans.”

In this file photo, Neshaminy Redskins fans cheer on their team.
In this file photo, Neshaminy Redskins fans cheer on their team.Read moreMichael S. Wirtz

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission on Monday voted that the Neshaminy School District can continue to use the name Redskins for its athletic teams, but must educate students about Native American history to prevent stereotypes.

The commission, which met in Harrisburg, also ordered the Bucks County district to cease using "any and all logos and imagery in the Neshaminy High School that negatively stereotype Native Americans.”

The decision was met with mixed emotions in the community, where a years-long controversy has mirrored national debates over whether the term is offensive to Native Americans. Some Native Americans who contest the term as a racial slur expressed disappointment, while proponents of keeping the name cheered on social media.

While disheartened that Redskins would stay, critics supported the commission’s requirement that the district provide education around the term. Other community members, meanwhile, expressed some confusion about what the decision would mean, including the order related to logos.

“The imagery is what the team stands behind,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “One without the other is odd, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t clear Monday whether uniforms or athletics would be impacted by the decision. In the past, the district’s basketball court floor has portrayed a Native American in a headdress.

Chris Stanley, a spokesperson for the school district, which had supported keeping the name, declined comment on the decision’s impact Monday. He said the district’s legal counsel was reviewing the decision “and will advise the Neshaminy school board regarding this matter.”

» READ MORE: Will state hearing bring closure to Neshaminy ‘Redskins’ debate?

Donna Fann-Boyle, a parent of Cherokee and Choctaw descent in the Neshaminy district who initiated a complaint with the commission on behalf of her son in 2013, said she and other Native Americans at Monday’s hearing “were flabbergasted … because it is a racial slur.”

“From what we gathered, they were tied by law,” said Fann-Boyle, of Middletown Township. “Which doesn’t really make sense, because while they recognized this affects all students, they didn’t have a Native student to testify.”

The commission, which brought its own case against the district in 2015 and held hearings in January, noted in its decision that Native American students had not provided testimony, which it said was necessary to prove harassment.

“While the absence of such testimony may be legally significant for purposes of this individual case, we conclude that the record contains sufficient testimony to support a finding that the term ‘Redskins’ is offensive and, as a matter of guidance from the [commission], should no longer be allowed to be used in the commonwealth in a public school setting, regardless of whether Native American students are enrolled at any particular school,” the decision said.

Later, however, the decision says that “with such a long-standing history and as presently used at Neshaminy High School ... the term Redskins has been shown to evoke feelings of loyalty in many and does create a sense of unity with which fans of the sports teams identify. It is the stereotypical logos and imagery that pose the problem.”

The commission’s executive director, Chad Dion Lassiter, who doesn’t get to vote, said Monday he couldn’t comment on those statements. The decision was written by a hearing examiner and approved by six commissioners, Lassiter said; a seventh abstained, while an eighth wrote a separate opinion.

“I respect the integrity of the ruling,” Lassiter said. “I also fundamentally know the term Redskins is a racial slur.”

» READ MORE: Flap over Neshaminy ‘Redskins’ nickname goes before a state panel

The Redskins name has drawn protest across the country, most prominently over the Washington Redskins. The NFL team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, has said he will “never” change the team’s name.

Proponents of keeping the name point to polling showing Native Americans largely don’t find the term offensive. A 2016 Washington Post poll found 90% of Native Americans said the term did not bother them.

But name-change advocates have rejected such findings. The National Congress of American Indians, a Washington-based nonprofit, says that Redskins is a racial slur “rooted in government bounty announcements calling for the bloody scalps of Native Americans” in the 1800s, and that tribal nations and organizations across the country have condemned the use of the word.

» READ MORE: Neshaminy adviser suspended over newspaper's word ban

And while Snyder’s team has held firm, more than 2,000 “Indian” references in sports have been eliminated over the last 35 years, according to the group.

In May, Maine became the first state to ban Native American mascots in all public schools. An Idaho high school in July dropped its “Redskins” moniker after heated debate. A suburban Wisconsin school district is surveying students as it considers getting rid of its “Indians” nickname.

In Neshaminy, student newspaper editors faced a backlash after voting in 2013 to ban the word Redskin from the publication’s pages.

Fann-Boyle withdrew her complaint to the commission in 2015 after she said she faced harassment.

Though she filed the complaint on behalf of her son, then a Neshaminy High student, Fann-Boyle said she instructed him not to talk about the issue “because I didn’t want him to face what I was facing.”

“It’s very hard for that one minority person to stand up in front of the majority who’s harassing them and take that bullet,” Fann-Boyle said.

While disappointed that the decision allows Neshaminy to keep the name, she supported calls for Neshaminy to teach students about indigenous tribes living in the Western Hemisphere before Europeans arrived, and “the theory of the genesis of the term Redskins,” including references to bounties paid to whites for Native American body parts.

“Maybe through that education they will come to the acknowledgment that the term … is a racial slur,” Fann-Boyle said.

The decision did not specify which logos needed to be changed. But it said a witness called by the district during the hearings said imagery at the high school was “stereotypical of Native Americans as warriors.”

The warrior imagery “denies the strength, order and beauty found in the variety of cultures associated with many different tribes,” the decision said. Each of the logos and imagery found at Neshaminy High must be reviewed independently to determine whether it depicts a negative stereotype, it said.