After racial incident, Quakertown supe says, 'This is not just a one-time incident. We have a problem'

Tom Irvine, 18, is a senior at Quakertown Community High School and the leader of the student section at football games. The racial incident “really set us back, as a community,” he said.

The ugly racial incidents at a Quakertown Community High School football game didn’t just hurt the black students from Cheltenham High School who were the targets of racial epithets, in the view of one Quakertown student leader.

“It definitely put us back, I guess you could say,” said Tom Irvine, 18,  a senior who organizes the student cheering section at athletic events. “Quakertown is actually a very good school. We don’t stand for any of that.”

Irvine was among those attending Wednesday night’s varsity girls’ soccer match at Quakertown Community High School’s Alumni Field on an evening when the mood of the crowd matched the tranquility of the weather.

On Oct. 6, the field was home to an ugly chain of events during a football game against Cheltenham High as students hurled slurs and other hateful comments toward Cheltenham cheerleaders, so frightening that their coach was reluctant to let them use the restroom. Some students said people said that “black lives don’t matter” and “don’t shoot me” and that Cheltenham’s school buses were pelted with rocks.

The following day, Quakertown Superintendent Bill Harner, a Cheltenham graduate himself, said an investigation revealed the perpetrators to be a small group of middle-school students — two eighth graders in particular — roaming the sidelines. Cheltenham students insist more were involved, including adults in the stands. According to Harner, the district is taking “appropriate actions.”

“This is not just a one-time incident. We have a problem,” Harner said in an interview Thursday. In a recent blog post, Harner described a number of instances of racism and harassment that had been reported to him in his four years as superintendent, including in the wake of the Oct. 6 football game.

“You have to determine what is the right time to address it,” Harner said Thursday. “Clearly, this is the right time for Quakertown.”

READ MORE: School racial incidents in Coatesville, Washington Twp. and Quakertown: A recap

Parents interviewed Wednesday said that while the actions were atrocious, the gloss of shame now over the entire school district is misplaced. They found fault with some of the media criticism, and many commended Harner’s prompt response.

“It’s an unfortunate situation, for our community and Cheltenham,” said Tim Gluck, 41, a father of a soccer player at the school. That kind of hate springs from home, he said. But “I think it’s being addressed by our school district pretty well.”

Camera icon Colt Shaw
On Oct. 18th, a crowd at Quakertown Community High School’s Alumni Field watch a varsity girls’ soccer match. On Oct. 6th, racial slurs were shouted at Cheltenham’s cheerleaders.

Cheltenham, adjacent to the city limits, has a historically diverse student body. According to the district, 53 percent of the pupils are black, and 34 percent white.  Quakertown Community High School, closer to the Lehigh Valley than Philadelphia, is predominantly white.

Jackie Bollman, 35, who watched the game from the sideline with her two children, said she found reports of the event to be disheartening, but echoing others’ comments, she insisted the incidents were anomalous.

“This is not something you see regularly and I just hope that they address those kids, because they definitely need to be addressed,” Bollman said. “But it shouldn’t tarnish the whole community.”

Irvine, citing Harner’s summary of the investigation, said Quakertown high schoolers were being unfairly “targeted.”

As for the allegedly guilty eighth graders, he said: “They were probably running around under the bleachers. That’s what kids do.”

In an email to parents Oct. 10, Strayer Middle School principal Derek Peiffer said student council leaders were creating a “support video and support day to show our true character and send it to Cheltenham as an apology from the school.”

Peiffer is working to “develop a comprehensive plan for educating our students on topics such as cultural awareness, reducing prejudice, and exploring assumptions and stereotyping,” he said in the email. Boxes will be placed throughout the school, he said, “where students can ‘say something’ if they ‘see something’ … for us to investigate.”

Harner, the superintendent, said Thursday he was still developing the district’s strategy to address racism going forward. “It’s not going to be a directive; it’s going to be a community effort,” he said.  “For the most part, I’ve received a lot of very affirming emails, saying, ‘I’m glad you’re talking about it.’ ”

Parents said they understood the outrage in response to the incidents at the football game.

“I think most of the people I know are appalled that this would even happen,” said Jeff Geiser, 51, a father of three current students and one former.

Geiser and others said the actions reflect more on the families than the community.

“Race and that kind of stuff, it starts at home,” Geiser said. “I wouldn’t castigate an entire community.”