I began my teaching career at a high school whose mascot was an Indian. This was the fall of 2001. By 2002, we became the Wolves when the school board and administration changed the name after objections of many students, parents, and alumni -- and because it was, simply, the right thing to do.
Sure there was some backlash (i.e. some people, especially alumni, were upset). There usually is when you change tradition. But tradition alone is not an excuse to offend an entire culture and group.
I was proud of my school for making the change, and it's why -- 12 years later -- I'm shocked by what's happening at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pennsylvania where editors of the student newspaper, The Playwickian, and its adviser are being punished for banning the word "Redskins" in the publication that has been published monthly since the 1930s.
According to the Student Press Law Center and the Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press Rights Commission, the administration "handed down a decision this week to pull $1,200 of funding from the publication; suspend its adviser, Tara Huber, for two days; and to suspend Editor-in-Chief Gillian McGoldrick from the newspaper until the end of September."
This war of words has been going on for almost a year, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, who reports that the principal of the school, Robert McGee, insisted that the student editors and their adviser lift the ban and allow the word "Redskins" -- the nickname of the sports teams -- to appear in their publication.
The battle came to a head in June when the student editors decided not to publish a letter to the editor written by Stephen Pirritano, a football player and a school board member's son, that repeatedly used the word "Redskins." The letter, which was later published in its entirety on The Morning Call, a community newspaper, ends, "Being a Neshaminy Redskin is more than just a title. It is a closely knit family consisting of everyone who is involved or has ever been involved with the Neshaminy School District. I am proud to forever be a Neshaminy Redskin and no one, not even 'The Playwickian', can censor that."
According to SPLC director Frank LoMonte, after receiving the letter, the editors planned to publish the letter with Redskins as "R--------"; however, school administrators directed that they publish the original letter with the complete word.
This directive is against Pennsylvania code that gives student editors the right to edit -- including making style changes such as not allowing an offensive racial slur.
"[The Neshaminy School Board] has declared war on journalism and they cannot be allowed to win it," LoMonte said.
Instead of running either letter, student editors choose to run an editor's note. According to issuu.com, the note ran on the editorial page of the June 13 issue (vol. 82 issue 7) and reads, "A letter to the editor regarding the use of the mascot's name was sent to us. The editors wished to publish this letter with the word as 'R-------,' but the school administration advised us that we must publish the entire word. In light of that we have decided not to publish the letter in this edition of the Playwickian. This white space represents our resolve to maintain our rights as editors and our determination to eliminate discrimination."
Semantics aside, what I see here is a group of teenagers who care, who stand up for an act that they believe is wrong. They are not only fighting for their rights as student journalists, but also fighting for an entire ethnic group that is discriminated against when team mascots don images of the face of a Native American wearing a headdress, a common practice at Neshaminy High School.
As news of Huber's suspension spread across the scholastic journalism community this week, hundreds of student publications throughout the nation spoke out about the injustice that's occurring at Neshaminy.
"This has galvanized the entire scholastic journalism community," LoMonte said. "Nationally, everyone is behind these students and this teacher. You rarely see such an outcry of support."
Jake Chiarelli, a 17-year-old student editor at Frances Howell North High School in St. Charles, Missouri, said his staff published an editorial in support of Playwickian.
"A lot of our editors were fired up about the situation," he said. " It's hard for us to imagine that kind of extreme censorship coming from a modern-day administration. We thought about what it would be like if our adviser was suspended, or one of our editor-in-chiefs was forced out of our newsroom. It's appalling that the Neshaminy students are being put through such an ordeal by their administration."
Melissa Wantz, a journalism teacher at Foothill Technology High School in Ventura, California said her student editors were puzzled by the situation at Neshaminy because they work with administrators who trust them.
"It seems surreal to them that this is happening to the Playwickian staff. They feel it's unjust and unconstitutional," Wantz said.
The Foothill Dragon Press, an online publication that Wantz oversees, published a staff editorial in May calling for change. The students at her school have banded together to raise money online to replace the Playwickian's docked funds so the staff there has resources to publish their next edition. As of Friday afternoon, the site has raised almost $2,200 of its $2,400 goal.
Wantz said she believes the Neshaminy School Board is transforming the Playwickian into a "zombie student newspaper."
"If you take away student autonomy to decide what is racist, offensive or unwanted in their own publication, you take away the heart and spirit of actual journalism, and, I would argue, of the First Amendment," she said. "Because now you have turned it into a student publication that must bow to a government body not to gain approval for what editors want to publish, but as a mandate for what they must publish. This crosses a line that I don't know has been crossed before in high school journalism."
As a journalism teacher, like Wantz, I'm appalled by the clear neglect of First Amendment rights to this student publication. As a citizen, I'm appalled by this administration's desire to keep a racial slur as a mascot because of tradition.
The Neshaminy School Board needs to reevaluate its priorities. Instead of defending tradition, it should applaud these student editors for questioning a custom that is discriminatory and wrong.