A calm opening for South Jersey school after days of racial unrest

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Washington Township, NJ, High School saw racial tensions over a social media exchange among some students that used racial slurs.

Classes resumed as scheduled, students of the month were recognized at breakfast, preparations were made for a 5 p.m. homecoming spirit parade, and the football team was set to play a powerhouse rival at 7.

Friday was part of Spirit Week at Washington Township High School, and except for the unusual police presence and reverberations from an emotional gathering of parents and school officials the previous night, apparent normalcy descended on the school community after days of tensions sparked by racially charged social media messages exchanged by some students.

The school day passed without incident or protests, said Jan Giel, a district spokeswoman, though for a second straight day, there was an increased police presence at the suburban Gloucester County school. Washington Township High enrolls nearly 2,300 students in grades 9 through 12.

Principal Ann Moore celebrated the school’s 50 “Students of the Month” for September at a breakfast in their honor, commending them for making positive impressions so early in the school year.

On the negative side, according to school officials, were 16 students, including three football players, who were suspended for their roles in the ugly events of the week. Some were disciplined for being part of the offensive texting, others for taking part in a melee that followed, and others for videotaping the altercation.

Football coach Lamont Robinson, in his first year at the helm of the rebuilding program, said the episode has provided a teachable moment for the team.  Robinson is the school’s first black football coach. His message to his players? “Whether a white kid scores a touchdown or a black kid scores a touchdown, we get six points.”

Merely taking the field would be a triumph then for the Minutemen. The team is 1-4 and opponent Cherokee High School is  4-1 and ranked No. 8 in South Jersey.

At an emergency community meeting Thursday evening, school officials encouraged parents to join a new task force to deal with racial issues. In a letter to parents Friday, schools Superintendent Joseph Bollendorf said the Equity Coalition would “work towards real solutions that will help to move our schools and our community forward.”

Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County NAACP, said she, too, plans to serve on the task force.

“It has calmed down,” she said Friday morning. “Everyone is feeling a little bit better, but they’re not there yet.”

On Thursday, about 170 or so students — black and white — skipped classes and staged an hours-long sit-in at the school to protest a text-message exchange among some white classmates earlier in the week that used the N-word. The exchange ended up on Snapchat and quickly went viral.

School officials said many of the students involved in exchanging the racist texts were athletes, but they could not say what motivated the messages.  Robinson said he didn’t believe the messages were related to his appointment. “From the black kid to the white kid, there are kids who love me. I make decisions that are in the best interest of the team.”

According to a screenshot of the Snapchat post obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News, the N-word was used several times. “ya’ll think your cool cause the color of your skins, black, but I think we should bring the kkk back,” one said. At one point, someone expressed concern about “getting into trouble in school [because] there is screenshots of us saying” the N-word.

“Freedom of speech,” another student responded.

Some students said previous such incidents had not been adequately addressed by officials.

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

Hundreds of students and parents attended the community meeting convened Thursday night by Bollendorf in the school auditorium. The meeting lasted more than three hours, said Pamela McMellon-Wells, a black parent whose daughter, Alexandra, 16, was involved in Thursday’s protest.

“I had no idea that the racism was to this level,” McMellon-Wells, 50, who herself graduated from the high school in 1984, said Friday morning. “It’s disgusting.”

A fracas broke out at the school Wednesday, the day after a small group of students shared what initially was a private group conversation containing racial slurs, Bollendorf said. The group text was then shared on Snapchat “and spread like wildfire,” he said.

Some students who attended Thursday night’s meeting told 6ABC they believed they were unfairly suspended.

“We didn’t do anything physical,” said Davin McCoy, a black student who said he was suspended along with three friends. “It’s heartbreaking.”

The school is 81 percent white, 8 percent black, 6 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent multiracial.

McMellon-Wells said the school district asked parents and students to join the newly created task force that is to tackle racial issues. One parent asked the district to hire a diversity officer and provide sensitivity and diversity training district-wide.

For Alycia Kohler, who is white, the events of this week brought to mind something she witnessed back in the 1980s when she was a first grader in Washington Township. A black male student transferred into her classroom  and “I remember the teacher yelling at him,” said Kohler, 36, education director at a nonprofit in Philadelphia. “It was one of those memories of a little kid who looked different from everyone else … being picked on,” she said.

Winters, the head of the Gloucester County NAACP, said to her knowledge racist attitudes at the school go back decades, “but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”

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