Pa. commission could ax controversial Neshaminy school mascot

A public hearing this week will evaluate whether Native American-themed mascot creates “hostile educational environment.”

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A mural of the Neshaminy High School mascot. (Eugene Sonn/WHYY)

A mural of the Neshaminy High School mascot. (Eugene Sonn/WHYY)

A public hearing this week in Bucks County could spell the end of a controversial school mascot.

For decades, the sports teams in the Neshaminy School District have been called the Redskins. In a suit filed against the district in 2015, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission argued the name, ditched by dozens of schools around the country, discriminates against Native Americans and creates “hostile educational environment” for Neshaminy students.

“It’s not only racial and insensitive, it’s polarizing,” said Chad Dion Lassiter, the commission’s executive director.

The hearing at Bucks County Community College is expected to last at least five days, with testimony from nearly 30 witnesses, including former students, teachers, and administrators.

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Langhorne resident Donna Fann-Boyle, who has Native American lineage, is scheduled to testify Tuesday. In 2013, when her son was a freshman at Neshaminy High School, Fann-Boyle filed a complaint with the commission over the district’s use of the mascot. She later withdrew the complaint, which led to the commission suing the district on its own.

To her, it’s high time the district find a new nickname for its sports teams.

“Even if you’re born a boy or a girl, you can decide what you are. And you can’t discriminate against that person’s perceived thought of what they are. So, it amazes me that you can blatantly discriminate against a race of people by using a racial slur and the stereotypical images in an educational institution,” said Fann-Boyle.

The logo for the high school’s basketball team is a profile of a Native American man wearing a feathered headdress. The football team’s helmets say “Skins” on them. And baseball players wear caps with a tomahawk on the front.

Neshaminy senior Andrew Kleppinger, a pitcher on the team, said there’s nothing negative about the word Redskins, a reference to the Lenni-Lenape tribe that once thrived in the area.

“They were hard fighters. They obviously survived in rough conditions,” he said. “They had to be tough. And that’s how our athletes and how our school tries to look at things. We try to fight like a Neshaminy Redskin.”

Through a spokesman, the district declined comment. In the past, it has denied the commission’s allegations, calling them “unfounded.”

The commission, which is both arguing and ruling on the case, has already sided against the district on the mascot issue — twice.

It’s unclear when its next decision will come. Either side can appeal to commission’s ruling in Commonwealth Court.

The long-simmering debate over the district’s mascot made national headlines in 2013 when school officials — and the school board — battled editors at the high school newspaper The Playwickian. Those editors decided to ban the word “Redskins” from articles and editorials because they deemed it racially insensitive.

In response to the student-led ban, the Neshaminy School Board passed a policy that barred editors from removing “Redskins” from op-eds, but allowed them to keep it out of news articles.

Disclosure: A Neshaminy High School graduate who works at WHYY was deposed as part of the commission’s case.

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