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At Neshaminy High, an 'eye-opener' for student editors

NESHAMINY Nearly every day at Neshaminy High School, a student ventures to the school newspaper's office with a message that would be thrilling for most publications: He's thinking about buying an ad.

NESHAMINY Nearly every day at Neshaminy High School, a student ventures to the school newspaper's office with a message that would be thrilling for most publications: He's thinking about buying an ad.

But at the Playwickian, Neshaminy's monthly paper, the message is slightly less welcome.

Because this student's potential offer is focused on one purpose: to see the word Redskin inside the paper.

"It's just funny - until we're forced to publish it," said editor-in-chief Gillian McGoldrick, 16. The paper voted to ban the use of the word, but by the principal's orders, it would have to use it in a paid advertisement.

McGoldrick said that so far she hasn't taken the student seriously, since he hasn't put up any money.

But as Neshaminy pride swells ahead of Saturday's state football playoff between the Redskins and St. Joseph's Prep, editors say their decision generated a different emotional charge in the community.

Fellow students have ripped up the paper and thrown shreds in the air, while others said it should be burned or have refused to read it.

A school board member tweeted "try not to be so sensitive" at a student editor, and parents have taken to Facebook to bemoan the decision.

Last month principal Rob McGee overturned the ban, saying it could violate other students' First Amendment rights. McGee couldn't be reached for comment.

During a Nov. 20 meeting at which students were to discuss that decision, tempers flared as he delivered a PowerPoint presentation and handed out a packet of more than 50 pages about why the ban should not be allowed.

Editors say they love the school and are thrilled by the success of their athletic teams.

But they say the contentiousness surrounding their decision has surprised them, and taught them how adults and students alike can get swept into nasty public debates.

"It's eye-opening, honestly," said Reed Hennessy, 16, the paper's sports editor.

The Playwickian's 21-person editorial board first voted to ban Redskin in October, saying in an unsigned editorial on Oct. 23 that the term was racist.

McGee then ordered the ban put on hold, but some legal experts say his stance is unlikely to hold up in court.

"That's such a frivolous argument, I can't believe they believe it," said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which has been working with the Playwickian to find pro bono legal representation.

LoMonte said that Pennsylvania regulations "firmly put students in charge of editorial decisions," and that school interference is generally limited to prevent messages of defamation or violence.

Preventing students from editing out terms like Redskin means "there would never be any editing in a student newspaper," LoMonte said.

McGee's explanation was also mocked by ESPN2 anchor Keith Olbermann last month, during a segment called "The World's Worst Person in Sports."

Many at Neshaminy say that despite all the attenion, the debate hasn't affected the overall mood of the school.

"There's just such a good vibe going around," said Katie Suchodolski, 17, a senior on the girls' soccer team, which capped an undefeated season with a state title last month.

And football coach Mark Schmidt said he doesn't think it has affected his players.

"It's really something that's not in our control and not in our hands," he said. "It hasn't slowed our student body's enthusiasm."

Editors agree, and say attempts to paint them as going against school spirit are misguided.

What they wanted to do with the ban, McGoldrick said, was simply stop using a term that they found racially insensitive.

"We love being a part of the Neshaminy community," McGoldrick said, adding she could be proud of the teams without being thrilled about the name.

McGoldrick said she's not sure what the editors will do if an ad or some other item comes through containing Redskin for the December edition, although nothing is on the horizon so far.

But the filing deadline isn't until next week, she said, and the debate for the last two months has been unpredictable.

Whatever happens, she's proud of how the editors have handled the firestorm so far.

"I would totally do this again," she said. "We really stood up for something that we believe in."