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Pa. court says commission erred in ordering Neshaminy School District to stop using imagery stereotyping Native Americans

The opinion is the latest in a long-running battle over the Bucks County district's team name, and comes amid a broader debate over Native American mascots.

A sign for Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pa.
A sign for Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pa.Read moreASSOCIATED PRESS

The Commonwealth Court this week reversed an order that Neshaminy School District stop using logos and imagery that stereotype Native Americans, the latest decision in a long-running battle over the school’s team name.

The court’s opinion upended a ruling from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that didn’t bar the use of “Redskins” — widely seen now as a racist slur — but determined that the logos and imagery associated with the name could enable students to form harmful stereotypes and lead to discrimination.

The problem with the ruling, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer wrote, is that the commission didn’t find that the district had discriminated against Native American students.

“The Commission nonetheless, apparently conflictingly, held that the discrimination of Native American students caused harm to non-Native American students,” Jubelirer said. “The Commission cannot both dismiss claims as unsubstantiated or speculative and then rely on those claims to find harm to others.”

Tameka Hatcher, educational outreach coordinator for the commission, said in a statement that while the commission respects the court’s decision, “we must acknowledge that names such as ‘Redskin’ and imagery of the Native American scalp are painful symbols that are deeply rooted in historical stereotypes and racial trauma for Indigenous Americans. When one segment of our population is negatively affected, it has an impact on society as a whole.”

A spokesperson for the Neshaminy district declined to comment.

Donna Fann-Boyle, a parent of Cherokee descent who has been fighting Neshaminy to drop the name, called the court’s decision “horrible.”

“When you’ve deemed a term a racist slur, then how is a school allowed to use it, and how is a school allowed to use stereotypes of any minority as a representative for their predominately white school?” Fann-Boyle said. “The fact that Native people have to keep fighting this is just bizarre.”

» READ MORE: In Pennsylvania public schools, an ‘epidemic’ of Native American mascots and nicknames

As with the national debate over the use of the name — dropped last year by the NFL’s Washington Football Team — the controversy over Neshaminy’s team name has been ongoing for years. Challenges from students to using the name date back decades. The issue gained steam when Fann-Boyle filed a complaint with the commission in 2013, and student newspaper editors voted to ban the name. The Human Relations Commission then brought a case against Neshaminy in 2015.

After days of hearings that included conflicting testimony about whether the term was a racial slur, the commission in 2019 did not ban the district from keeping the name, but said it needed to educate students about Native American history to prevent harmful stereotypes.

The commission said that legally, it could not find that the district had discriminated against Native Americans because no Native American students had testified during the hearing. But it said there was “sufficient testimony to support a finding that the term ‘Redskins’ is offensive.”

The school district appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which led to this week’s opinion.

Fann-Boyle said students shouldn’t be forced to testify about how they were discriminated against. “We’re here to protect children, not to put them through trauma,” she said, adding that “this would not happen with any other minority.”

» READ MORE: Radnor students protest to keep ‘Raider’ name amid debate over Native American mascots

Other districts have been grappling with the use of Native American team names. In Radnor, where the school board voted last year to drop both the Raider nickname and related imagery, students have protested to keep the name, arguing it isn’t offensive when separated from the imagery.

Fann-Boyle said she hoped the commission would appeal the Neshaminy decision. “This is not over, by a long shot,” she said.