West Goshen Police Chief Joseph Gleason stood in front of parents Tuesday evening, more than a week after online death threats and racial slurs targeted several West Chester East High School students.
A black student has since been charged, and the targeted students are back in school. But on Tuesday, some parents were still frustrated, angry even, with the police and school district response to the threats posted last Sunday on the “East Shade Room” Instagram page. Some say they should have been notified with phone calls before the school day began.
Gleason was honest with them: There had been an internal misunderstanding, which delayed police notifying the school.
“It is all about dialogue,” Gleason said Wednesday. “Communication is the key, but it has got to be valid, accurate communication.”
“I definitely respected that,” said Dayna Spence, a parent who organized the meeting.
At a time when national headlines so often detail fractured relationships between police departments, local officials, and the communities they serve, Tuesday’s meeting in West Chester was meant to open a dialogue. It was designed to be a positive conversation, Spence said, where each side could learn the other’s perspective.
West Chester Area Superintendent Jim Scanlon said he had participated in and even facilitated such meetings in the past. This one, he said, revolved around particularly “emotional” topics: student safety and racism.
To many at the meeting, it didn’t matter that the 14-year-old who was arrested in this incident is black and has not been charged with a hate crime, Spence said. He is charged with harassment, cyber bullying, and terroristic threats.
“For us, it doesn’t matter what color skin you have,” he said, “we’re going to treat racial comments the same way.”
Parents, however, believe the threats were responded to differently not because of who the threats allegedly came from, but because the targets were minority students, Spence said.
One of the biggest points of contention, she said, was how the district responded after those targeted students returned to school.
Last Wednesday, two days after the student’s arrest, school officials held meetings with the Black Student Union, not with the whole student body. Some parents and students thought the district’s tone in that meeting was defensive, Spence said, and did not make the students feel any safer. Instead, she said, it made the kids even more of a target.
But the school was well-intentioned, first wanting to talk with the students most affected by the threats, Scanlon said.
“We will probably have to agree to disagree on how that was handled,” Spence said.
Aside from the occasional heated moment at Tuesday’s meeting, Spence said, there was honest conversation about how incidents involving minority students could be better handled in the future.
“The school shouldn’t be tasked with getting rid of racism. That’s ridiculous,” Spence said. “It’s how the school responds.”
When West Goshen police were notified of the social-media threats on Monday morning, Sept. 11, Gleason said the department was under the impression the school already knew about them, which delayed the district finding out. He said the department, which regularly has officers assigned to the high school, would work to ensure such a miscommunication doesn’t occur again.
Scanlon said police and the district reviewed the communication protocol regarding social-media threats. He also had begun to schedule small group meetings with students about the racial comments and the proper use of social media, and will continue to meet with student leaders.
Both Scanlon and Gleason said they would also be open to additional discussions with parents.
Spence said she and other parents plan to bring an action plan to school officials and want the police to be involved in future conversations.
“I think we can make a difference,” Spence said, “and I’m encouraged by that.”