In the October issue of the Neshaminy High School newspaper, the Playwickian, the editorial staff decided that the word Redskin was racist and offensive to Native Americans, and that they would no longer use it or any derivative of it in their paper. This caused some issues as the school's sports teams are named the Redskins.
This issue has garnered much attention locally and nationally having been discussed in the New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Buck's County Courier Times and on Keith Olbermann's show on ESPN. However the major focus has been on the Redskin's controversy not, what is to my mind and the student's minds, the most important factor; the students right to make that decision.
I would like to tell the school board, the students and all Neshaminy parents, that these are young adults we should all be proud of. They give their free time to put out an award winning newspaper. They have recently been awarded the 2012-2013 Gold Award from the Pennsylvania School Press association and the Silver Certificate of Excellence for High School Journalism from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. The Pennsylvania School Press had this to say about the current Playwickian:
"The Playwickian newspaper staff, advised by veteran Tara Huber, was recognized for regularly looking beyond the campus for issues of concern to students. “You are not afraid to write about the hard and sensitive issues. You take risks on editorial pages – bravo!” The judge continued, “Nice job on social media presence. You did a great service to your readers. You also included Howler material. All great ways to provide coverage.”These students also exemplify what I hope every student is learning in our schools. They held an intelligent discourse about the subject then voted on it. Even after voting on it the opposing viewpoint was given equal time. Then most importantly, they all stood behind the paper's right to decide it. "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" is a principle this country was founded upon and is shown in practice by these 21 very brave students.
Background and more below the squiggle...
The original editorial (http://playwickian.com/...) lays out a well-reasoned decision. The 21 members of the editorial board held a discussion that allowed all members a say. The issue was debated and voted on, with 14 of the members agreeing to ban the R-word. The remaining seven wrote a dissenting point of view, which was printed on the same page of the paper as the majority view (http://playwickian.com/...). Then they all agreed to stand behind the policy.
The paper went to press and about 2 weeks later (October 28) the school principal, Dr. Robert McGee, sent an email to Mrs. Tara Huber, the faculty advisor to the paper, and asked her several pointed questions most seemingly geared to intimidate the students and their teacher. For example; in the first four questions, he continually asks whether their "intent is to restrict/censor" certain things. By using the term censor, he is implying that the students are violating other's first amendment rights, which they cannot be because they are not a government organization (which in this situation he is,) and the fifth "question" which reads, "Presently, the "highest" district authority authorizing this policy appears to be you". In this letter, he also told Huber and the students that their policy was on-hold since "To this point, the NHS Administration has not been consulted on the Playwickian's policy to restrict 'Redskin' and 'Skins' from the NHS School Newspaper" which is not something the student's need to do. This hold will be maintained, "…until such a time that we can determine that a school newspaper has such authority and that this policy does not infringe on the rights of others." Still no discussion between the school board/McGee and the students was done.
During this time, the next issue was being put together and a clearly trumped-up challenge was in the works. A coach for one of the school's teams sent out a blast e-mail claiming the students were trying to change the mascot of the school (and supported the defunding of extracurricular activities?) and that the boosters and student athletes should do everything they could to stop the editors. One alumna put an ad in for consideration with the word "redskin" in it repeatedly. The editors were presented with the paid ad and were told to publish it. However, the alumna pulled the ad and donated the money to the paper. The editors then took the money and donated it to the "Spirit Bus" that would take the Women's varsity Soccer team and fans to the State Championship Final This new issue also included another editorial trying to shift the focus from the word and to the underlying issue of the rights of the editorial board (http://playwickian.com/...). . This email also lead to the editors being bullied at school.
McGee set up a meeting with the editors and Huber to "discuss" the policy on November 19 (more than a month after he was made aware of the editorial policy.) The meeting was moved, as requested by Huber, to November 21 after school hours so that parents could attend. (I was at the meeting since my daughter is one of the editors.)
The "discussion" began with Magee asking to lay out the administration's position. He handed out a 52 page document that included everything from all the articles written on the subject, cases that the districts lawyers felt proved the students had no right to create the policy, a time line calendar and all of the curriculum maps for the school's journalism classes but, oddly enough, not the first editorial or the dissent. Obviously, "an overwhelming force" intimidation attempt. It also contained a subtle threat of accountability for Huber as the only employee of the district standing on the student's side and a not so subtle hint that the paper itself could be defunded.
The parents would have none of it and interrupted McGee quite often with questions and observations as he tried to lay out the justification for the student's rights being denied. This went on for over an hour with McGee just insisting on trying to continue plowing through his mass of paper that he, as an educator, should have known did little to help his case, as we were not there to be lectured to, but to discuss the situation.
Next, the students presented their position. This amounted to citations of case law that they felt bolstered their side.
The truly wonderful thing happened next.
All 21 editors, even the ones that had written the dissenting editorial, sat on the edge of the stage and the meeting became a discussion not a lecture. The students were at their best when answering the questions that the parents and McGee posed.
They explained that they were not infringing on anyone's rights, and even perfectly answered the "what if" scenarios that they were offered. They explained that opinions would not be censored; articles could be re-worded to comply with the new policy without losing the meaning of the article. Just like other newspapers do, the students edit submissions now for style and grammar; this is just a continuation of their acknowledged responsibilities as editors.
By the end of the night, one of the parents volunteered to create a mailing list so that everyone knew what was going on. McGee had, after learning about the bullying, agreed to do a school announcement explaining that the paper was not advocating removing the mascot, but just the word from the publication and that all harassment must stop. His address to the school was very well done and expressed several of the points made during the meeting (http://www.neshaminy.org//site/Default.aspx?PageID=25477). He also promised to do his best to deliver the student's view to the school board. I also believe that by the end Magee understood that the students had a strong point and could be trusted to fairly enforce this policy, and also that a future board of editors could reverse this policy in coming years.
Unfortunately, because this has dragged on so long I believe it is out of his hands and now rests with the school board, its lawyers and the lawyer the students have retained.