Coatesville school board member uses n-word at meeting

In the three years since it was rocked by racially charged text messages between the then-superintendent and athletic director, the Coatesville Area School District has strived to move past the scandal and the bitterness it spawned.

Recently, that effort has not gone so well.

At a school board meeting last Tuesday, a board member stirred new rancor by using the n-word in reference to a request that a student in his fifth year of high school be allowed to play basketball.

In arguing that academics take precedence over sports, Deborah Thompson, who is African American, quoted a white Coatesville board member from 1982 who said, "There's always a n- in the woodpile."

She went on to say that the expression meant "there's always a piece of wood that you can put on the woodpile, on the fire, and let it burn, and it turns to ashes."

Thompson's comment came minutes after Superintendent Cathy Taschner announced that the district had filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice, the NAACP, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, and the Center for Safe Schools about an incident at a Nov. 18 football game in which Coatesville students were taunted with racial slurs by rivals from North Penn High School in Lansdale.

Most North Penn students are white; about half in the Coatesville district are white, 31 percent are African American, and 17 percent are Hispanic. Almost a third of students in both districts are poor.

Thompson did not return a reporter's calls and messages. But after her comment stirred up a storm on Facebook, she posted an apology Sunday "to those who either misunderstood me or take offense that I said the word opposed to saying 'N.' "

She also tried to explain why she used the phrase.

"I was speaking about a lingering [mindset] then till now regarding minority athletes and [especially] black athletes related to their need to be successful in academics and appropriate conduct," wrote Thompson, elected to the board three years ago.

According to an encyclopedia entry, the rarely used expression means that something of importance has not been disclosed. It may once have referred to fugitive slaves who hid under piles of firewood.

After Thompson spoke, some in the audience said they were shocked.

"It's a disgrace," said Amber Perez, there with her 12-year-old daughter. "I surely hope something's done about it. I surely don't want her representing me anymore."

Perez noted that the superintendent had just praised Coatesville students for not responding in kind when harassed at the game. With Thompson's remarks, "that was all thrown out the window," she said.

Taschner called Thompson a "champion for children" and said she did not think the director was making a racial slur.

"Certainly I think our words matter. I think Ms. Thompson went on . . . Facebook and indicated her intention was not to offend anyone and if she did, she was sorry," Taschner said.

"Is that a word I use? No," she said, adding that she was unsure if the use of offensive words violated the district code of conduct, but that racial slurs are "not appropriate."

At the board meeting, Taschner told of several incidents at the District 1 playoff game in Lansdale. Several Coatesville cheerleaders and band members said that when they used the bathrooms on the North Penn side of the stadium, they were called "n-," "dirty b-," and "slaves." They were told to stay on their side of the stadium, which had only portable toilets.

According to the Coatesville students, adults heard the taunts but did nothing. A North Penn coach allegedly directed an obscenity at a Coatesville player.

"I find it horrifying," Taschner said.

The Coatesville district has worked with several civil justice groups to prevent discrimination since the two former administrators were charged with felony theft and state ethics law violations for texting racist and sexist messages in 2013.

On Monday, North Penn's superintendent, Curtis R. Dietrich, released a statement that the district was investigating the complaints and that unsportsmanlike conduct would not be tolerated.

Asked if she knew what had happened at the game, North Penn spokesperson Christine Liberaski said, "We won."

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@Kathy_Boccella