When Jessica McClelland was a Neshaminy High School senior and managing editor of the school paper, the Playwickian, she was the lone member of the editorial board who argued for using the name of the students’ Mr. Redskin pageant in print – and was harassed, she said, on social media for that stance.
On the fifth and final day of a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission hearing on whether Neshaminy’s Redskins sports-team nickname is racially offensive, McClelland said that as a high school student, she never considered the word a slur. Now that she’s taking education classes at Kutztown University, she’s changed her mind.
“Based on my education, I do not agree with the word Redskins anymore,” McClelland, 20, said Friday during the hearing at Bucks County Community College in Newtown. She said she now considers the word a wrongful appropriation of Native American culture.
The college student’s change of heart echoed the larger questions at stake in the PHRC hearings before a state hearing officer: Can this public airing bring closure to years of controversy over the Bucks County district’s continued use of a nickname that many consider a racial slur, or is the community more divided than ever?
Officials say it will be at least several months before the hearing officer and then the full commission determine if the nickname is discriminatory and, if necessary, any remedies are required. Then the losing side could appeal to Commonwealth Court.
But Donna Fann-Boyle – a woman of Cherokee descent whose son was a Neshaminy High student when she complained to the commission about the nickname in 2013 – said she believes the hearings showed that more people in the lower Bucks County community are coming around to her view that the district’s nickname and related tribal imagery of the last 60 years is offensive to Native Americans like herself.
“I think from the discussion that people are starting to see it – and maybe change their opinion of the word,” Fann-Boyle, who testified earlier in the week, said Friday.
However, the hearing officer, Carl Summerson, said that while he has presided over other sessions where the sides came to a quick settlement, that hasn’t happened in Neshaminy.
Summerson outlined a tentative timetable in which it would likely take three weeks for a transcript and then a couple of months for lawyers to file briefs before he makes any findings. The full commission would then vote on Summerson’s recommendation. He said the commission could go to Bucks County Court to enforce its order if it was not obeyed.
The 8,600‐student district has continued to press its case that the name is a cherished local tradition that honors the bravery of Native Americans and doesn’t offend any students.
On Friday, school board member Stephen Pirritano of Feasterville, one of the more vocal advocates for keeping the name, testified that it “goes to the culture of our area – no matter where you look, Indian culture is a part of Neshaminy.” He added, “I don’t think it’s a racial slur.”
Pirritano was cross‐examined by commission lawyer Lisa Knight, who asked if he knew that Redskins referred to practices of scalping and harming Native Americans. He responded that a lot of groups have been harmed through history.
On Friday afternoon, two Neshaminy officials testified – superintendent Joseph Jones and secondary schools head Robert McGee, who was Neshaminy High School principal at the height of the controversy. Commission attorney Morgan Williams pressed the former principal on whether he considered Redskins a racial slur.