Gillian McGoldrick had never thought twice about her school’s sports mascot when she began her junior year in 2013 as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Playwickian. And she had never heard of Donna Boyle. Gillian didn’t know the 30-year resident whose father was Cherokee-Choctaw and whose son was starting Neshaminy High School. Or that Boyle had been trying for more than a year to get the school to change its sports mascot, arguing that the image and name Redskins were racial slurs, insensitive and discriminatory.
The Playwickian reporter covering a school-board meeting early that fall heard Boyle, tired of sparring with school officials, had filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The reporter asked Gillian, “Isn’t this like using the word Nigger?”
The staff did research, had lengthy discussions (none about changing the mascot), then voted 14-7 to just stop using the word in the paper. Why? As Gillian said recently, “When President Obama said what he did about the Washington Redskins, we thought why not do what other professional journalists are doing? Why not be ethical?”
“We didn’t really think the students would notice or care after a few issues,” Gillian said. “We thought it’s the right thing to do, the human thing.” An editorial in the first issue told readers, “The change is not…for the sake of political correctness itself, but for the sake of being respectful and fair to an entire race.”
“We knew students would be mad at first,” Gillian stated. “And they were. We were clearly in the minority.” But it was interesting, she added, that without consciously avoiding the word, nobody used it in their stories – that year or the next.
Gillian was editor-in-chief for two years at Neshaminy and this fall is a sophomore journalism major at Temple University. But the issue her newspaper staff raised continues to plague the suburban Philadelphia high school. As it had several years earlier, heavy-handed administrative pressure last spring brought the Redskins debate to the national stage.
Gillian knew three years ago that the newspaper’s decision would be unpopular. But she wasn’t prepared for the response of administrators and the school board. Soon after the Playwickian’s word ban was announced, Principal Robert McGee held a two-hour meeting with Gillian and adviser Tara Huber, gave them a 54-page packet about the mascot, and told students they could not remove the word Redskins from any article or ad submitted to the newspaper.
“I didn’t know anything about the law or about the Pennsylvania Code,” Gillian said. But the more she learned, the more she wondered why school officials responded the way they did. [See “Students Pay Price For Taking Ethical Stance,” a May 2014 article in Gateway Journalism Review.]
If she and her staff were disappointed that year by the lack of support from Neshaminy students, administrators and the community, they were heartened by the response to local, state and national coverage of this issue. Gillian alone received National Scholastic Press Association recognition, the Student Press Law Center’s Courage in Journalism Award, the Ethics in Journalism Award from University of Oregon, the 2015 Native American Journalists Free Press Award and the 2014 Pennsylvania ACLU’s Civil Liberties Award.
By the end of the school year, administrators were following a lengthy new publications policy that the staff said, “threatens student journalists.” When the principal denied the staff’s request to publish, in the last issue of the year, a letter with the edited word “R——-,” editors left blank space instead of printing the letter they were told must include the word Redskin. The principal responded to this defiant act with punishment when the 2014-2015 year began, further cutting the newspaper’s annual allocation, suspending its adviser without pay for two days and removing Gillian as editor-in-chief for one month.
As opposition persisted, Gillian said, the biggest toll personally was “the time it took me away from reporting, writing and editing.” She was always under attack. “Parents and students bullied me so much that I stopped reading my Facebook page,” she recalls. “And now it’s 2016 and I’m still getting comments about this controversy.”
The school board approved another new publications policy, agreeing not to discipline a student or editor for deleting the word “Redskin” from an article or advertisement. But the principal now has 10 days to review copy prior to publication and students.
“Without a doubt, knowing that all copy goes to the principal for review inhibits students,” Gillian said, “and affects the timeliness of the newspaper content.” Some touchy topics were addressed in 2015-16 — a story on Satanism and one on abortion/pro-choice. The administration reviewed the stories and made some edits before they were published.
The student staff each year for the past three has continued to ban the word Redskin from the Playwickian, so still faces challenges. Timothy Cho, 2015-16 editor-in-chief, said that because the newspaper’s yearly budget was cut again, the staff had to raise additional money and sell more ads. Believing their allocation to be disproportionately lower than those of other extracurricular activities, editors asked to see records of what other groups received. This request was denied.
When a majority of editors voted this spring to use “R——“ in a story about the school’s annual Mr. Redskin pageant, one of the editors appealed to the administration. The principal ordered editors to use “Redskin” when the story was posted online in May, the one month when there was no printed issue. The staff refused, citing the editorial control given them in the most recent school policy — plus the Pennsylvania School Code and the First Amendment. Administrators responded by immediately locking down the website and revoking the editors’ administrative privileges to the newspaper’s site. School officials then uploaded the article to the website — with the word “Redskin.”
As this saga drags on, there are several bittersweet footnotes:
- Tara Huber, the journalism teacher throughout the controversy, told her principal that because of this latest censorship she was resigning as Playwickian adviser.
- Legal counsel representing Timothy Cho sent a detailed letter in June to Neshaminy’s school officials, requesting they restore the paper’s website and control of it to the student editor.
- Donna Boyle continues her battle to have the mascot replaced. Seventeen months after filing her complaint, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission said that Neshaminy’s use of Redskins is “racially derogatory” and creates a “hostile educational environment.” That January 2015 ruling told school officials to “cease and desist unlawfully discriminating against its students because of their race” within a “reasonable amount of time.” Since Boyle wants the mascot replaced and school officials have suggested anything but removal, a stalemate exists. The 11-member PHRC planned a public hearing for this summer. No action has been reported.
While it’s unclear whether or not Neshaminy High School’s athletes will remain the Redskins, there is no doubt its student journalists struck a chord in the community and raised its consciousness. “Parents have discouraged some students from joining the staff,” Gillian noted, “but those who stayed or joined the staff are students who feel more strongly about continuing the ban and taking the moral position of the newspaper.”
Gillian remains confident it was worth the struggle. “It’s ignorant and blind not to acknowledge that this mascot affects the self-image of Native Americans,” she said. “It’s just not right if we fail to acknowledge what their feelings are. We can’t define the word for them, but it clearly dehumanizes them. I hope the staff keep fighting for this.”