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Flap over Neshaminy ‘Redskins’ nickname goes before a state panel

After six years of controversy, Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission takes up racial-slur allegation.

Neshaminy teachers picket outside Neshaminy High School in early morning January 9, 2012.
Neshaminy teachers picket outside Neshaminy High School in early morning January 9, 2012.Read more

The long-running Neshaminy School District controversy over its Redskins nickname for sports teams entered a new arena Monday, as a state commission took up the dispute over whether the term demeans American Indians or honors their legacy.

Attorney Lisa Knight of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission argued before a commission hearing officer that the Bucks County district wouldn’t use a nickname based on any other racial group, so it shouldn’t use a term that many indigenous people find offensive.

“Instead of presenting an atmosphere of inclusion and learning, Neshaminy continues to use this racial slur,” Knight argued in the first day of hearings expected to last a week or longer. “Students who have spoken out against it have faced ridicule.”

But Neshaminy’s attorney, Craig Ginsburg, argued that today’s students aren’t offended by the nickname that the district has used for more than 60 years, and criticized the commission’s probe, alleging that its investigator didn’t visit Neshaminy High School and talk to teachers and students there.

“Neshaminy is not a place where students are running around dressed like Native Americans,” Ginsburg said in his opening argument. He added later: “It’s really a shame [Neshaminy educators] are being disparaged as racist — it’s not true.”

If the hearings — taking place at Bucks County Community College in Newtown — result in a finding of discrimination, the commission has a broad range of remedies, including ordering the district to change its nickname and requiring training for school board members, teachers, and staff, according to officials.

In 2013, Donna Fann-Boyle, who is of Cherokee descent, initiated a complaint with the commission on behalf of her son, then a Neshaminy High student. The initial case was dropped — Fann-Boyle said it was because she was being harassed — but in 2015, the commission filed its own charge accusing Neshaminy of violating Pennsylvania’s human-relations law.

More publicity came when the high school’s student newspaper, the Playwickian, moved to ban use of the word Redskins. The district eventually enacted its so-called Policy 600, which requires the paper to use the name in editorials and letters to the editor, but bars it in news and sports articles.

Chad Dion Lassiter, who joined the commission as its executive director last spring, was the first witness at Monday’s hearing. Citing his background teaching race relations at the University of Pennsylvania and West Chester University, he said he had “seen many settings where racial slurs have been used. It’s meant to dehumanize.”

Under cross-examination by Ginsburg, Lassiter said he wasn’t aware the commission investigator hadn’t visited the school or looked at academic records to gauge potential harm, and conceded he was “surprised.”

Neshaminy’s first witness was M. Andre Billeaudeaux, the Virginia-based executive director of a group called the Native American Guardians Association and the author of a children’s book called How the Redskins Got Their Name. Billeaudeaux said he has testified frequently on behalf of districts with American Indian nicknames.

Billeaudeaux, a commentator with CNS News, founded by conservative writer L. Brent Bozell, said that the majority of American Indians are not offended by team nicknames or mascots and that the name honors a tradition of warriors wearing red paint and clay into battle.

“It’s a point of pride,” said Billeaudeaux, who argued that team nicknames allow American Indians to keep recognition in the broader American culture.

The National Congress of American Indians and many of the larger and better-known tribes have passed resolutions opposing the use of native nicknames, imagery, and mascots. Billeaudeaux repeatedly pointed to two surveys — a 2016 poll by the Washington Post and a 2004 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center — which found roughly 9 percent of American Indians were offended by the Washington Redskins' name.

“The media has not been keen to produce the information that we have,” said Billeaudeaux, a former Coast Guard journalist.

Under cross-examination by Knight and questioning by the hearing examiner, Carl Summerson, Billeaudeaux conceded that the Neshaminy logo is historically inaccurate because it depicts a Plains Indian and not one from the Lenni Lenape tribe that once dominated the area that is now lower Bucks County.