Updated: Wednesday, September 27, 2017, 9:49 PM
Less than a year after the Council Rock School District was roiled by reports of scrawled hate symbols and racial incidents, about 40 parents, students, and residents at a community summit Wednesday night complained that incidents of intolerance in classrooms and on social media in the Bucks County district have gotten considerably worse over the past year.
“A lot of times I hear from the administration that it’s only a few, that it’s not that big a problem,” said Will Holmes, chairman of the Council Rock Diversity and Inclusion Council, “As part of the 1 to 2 percent of African Americans in this community, it’s a problem.”
The meeting at Newtown Friends Meeting — not attended by top district officials — brought forth complaints from parents and students that kids as young as middle school are using or posting images with the N-word on Snapchat, and that administrators were either not proactive enough or failed to communicate clearly about incidents involving Confederate flags, swastikas, or alleged hate speech.
“Certainly, in the last year, it’s been very blatant, clear and direct, quite frankly, racism,” said Tania Turner, a black parent with two kids in Council Rock schools and a third who has graduated. She spoke about a recent incident in which an eighth grader recorded his mother saying “stop acting like a n–” and then shared it with other students on Snapchat.
Nicole Pierce, who has two children in the district, said that last fall her 6-year-old daughter, who is Guatemalan, was at lunch in the cafeteria at Rolling Hill Elementary School when a support staffer asked kids for whom they were voting. When someone said Trump, the gathering broke into a chant of, “Build the wall!”
Last fall, as national tracking groups reported a spike in hate speech and symbols at schools, which many connected to the politically charged atmosphere around the election, Council Rock found itself in the center of the storm.
Swastikas and an anti-gay slur were scrawled in bathrooms at Council Rock North High School, a Latina student found a note in her backpack telling her to go back to Mexico, and a student reportedly came to school draped in a Confederate flag.
Those late 2016 reports sparked a series of town meetings and creation of the community-wide council, which aimed to monitor incidents in the school, promote conversations about tolerance, and work with district officials on new anti-discrimination policies and programs. The district is about 88 percent white, according to the latest state School Performance Profile, and 1.5 percent of students are African American.
“I think what’s going on is, the school district is woefully behind the times when it comes to diversity and inclusion policies, and what they’re doing — what’s really troubling — they’re playing Whack-a-mole when these issues come up,” said Marc Weinstein, a Council Rock parent and lawyer who is a board member of the council. “They’re dealing with these issues on an ad hoc basis, and not updating their diversity and inclusion polices to be real clear.”
Council Rock Superintendent Robert Fraser, responding to questions by email, lashed out at the group’s flier promoting the forum and spotlighting some recent incidents as “misleading,” “terribly unfortunate,” and promoting divisiveness. He said the council was overlooking or downplaying a host of district efforts involving training, new curriculum, and special assemblies around the issues of tolerance and inclusion.
Among the recent incidents that council members have flagged and reported to the district:
The creation in late August of an Instagram site — possibly in response to a student-led petition to change the long-time school mascot for Council Rock North, the Indians — that used the high school’s logo and posted a series of offensive images involving Mexicans, the disabled, and a hooded Klansman. The site has since gone private or been taken down. A complaint that during a varsity football game this month, a Council Rock South athlete directed racial slurs toward African American players from rival Harry S. Truman High School in Bristol Township — which led to his suspension, according to School Board President Edward F. Tate III. Several recent incidents involving the Confederate flag in the schools, including on the truck of a roofing subcontractor during a summer basketball camp at Council Rock South, on a shirt that a student bought at a country-music concert and wore to Council Rock North, and one that stayed up on the wall of Holland Middle School teacher who had taught a section on the Civil War.
Several leaders of the Diversity and Inclusion Council said that while district officials responded to the incidents after the fact, they believe Council Rock failed to properly notify the community about them and, more broadly, has not instituted more proactive anti-discrimination rules — for example, a ban on the Confederate flag.
“We would like to see some policies enacted,” said Lori Perusich, a member of the council and Weinstein’s wife. “I know they’re not allowed to wear bare-midriff shirts. They shouldn’t be allowed to wear a Confederate flag shirt.”
In addition, council members complained that they had been rebuffed by the district in seeking an inclusive policy towards transgender students, as some other districts in the Philadelphia region have done. Tate and Fraser said the district was holding off on a transgender policy, citing guidance from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association over ongoing lawsuits. Tate said “no problems have been encountered” that would require such a policy.
As for the incidents cited by the diversity group, Fraser said each was dealt with quickly and firmly — asking the contractor to leave, requiring the student to change her shirt, and removing the classroom flag, with a warning message sent to the full district staff about the display of Confederate symbols.
Several speakers at the meeting charged that the district has long been unresponsive to issues surrounding race or intolerance, citing an incident a couple of years ago when a swastika was painted on the football field at Council Rock South and was quietly painted over with no word from school officials.
Nya Evans, a senior at Council Rock South who is black and who related that story, also said administrators first balked and then relented on her request to form a club around race and diversity issues.
Another black student, Jayla Johnson, a senior at Council Rock North High, said she received an even sharper response when in the ninth grade, she proposed a black student union and was told by teachers and other kids the idea was racist and was even asked, “What about a white student union?”
She said she responded, “We have that — it’s called Council Rock.”
Fraser had sent out a district-wide “unequivocal message” on Sept. 1 before the start of school that asserted, “Our schools are no place for actions or words that are racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or the like,” asked for parents’ help in monitoring their kids’ social media, and spelled out an array of district initiatives, including its charity work with a group called “Think Kindness.”