Students tell of death threats, racial epithets at West Chester East

Wearing a red cheerleader’s uniform and a bow in her hair, a petite girl stood in front of a crowd in a packed auditorium Monday night, and said she had been called a lesbian and told to kill herself.

Other students at West Chester East High School spoke of being called the “n-word,” “dirty Mexicans,” and “cracker.” A few said they were told they would be killed at school Monday. One said her sister, an eighth grader, also had been threatened.

The students said those messages came on an Instagram page called “East Shade Room,”  where pictures of several students at West Chester East were posted, along with the Instagram labels of three students in particular and the comment: “If you guys come to school tomorrow, you will die.”

One posting on the page read, “I feel bad for y’all. Because y’all think it’s a joke. Each and everyone on [sic] those n—s will be killed tomorrow.”

Some students who were targeted  spoke to parents and area residents Monday night at a community meeting at Charles A. Melton Arts and Education Center in West Chester.

West Goshen Township police said earlier Monday that they had a suspect in custody who admitted posting the threats. Police said that the individual posed “no threat of violence” but that the Chester County District Attorney’s Office was reviewing the case.

Neither police nor West Chester Area School Superintendent Jim Scanlon would say if the person is a student at the school.

At the meeting, students said they were scared, disgusted, and disappointed in the school administration for not being more concerned.

West Chester East principal Kevin Fagan posted a letter to parents on the school’s website Monday that read in part: “As soon as we heard about this, we worked closely with authorities and our technology department to investigate.

“Our police departments believe our school is safe for students and staff, but out of an abundance of caution, extra police will be patrolling our campus today.”

The students said a group of them went to the school’s main office Monday morning with messages from the page. But they said administrators brushed off their concerns.

“To us, it’s a big deal,” one student said. “We’re being threatened for our life.”

Scanlon said schools are often targeted by threats around the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

He said that perhaps the person in custody, or whoever was responsible, thought he was making a joke.

“But of course it was not funny,” he said.

Some parents at the meeting were concerned that they received no phone calls from the school about the threats.

William Washington, the father of one of the children whose photo appears on the page, said police knew about the threat at 10 p.m. Sunday but did not call the school superintendent until after 6 a.m. Monday.

Washington said he learned of the threat from other parents. He said that he and other parents, including parents of students not named in the threats, took their children out of school early Monday.

“I went to pick him up at 8 a.m. this morning,” Washington said. He said his son, a 16-year-old junior, “didn’t make it past first period.”

He said he was upset because students and police who knew about the threat, including his son, did not tell him about it.

“He didn’t bring it to my attention because he thought it was a joke,” Washington said. “The problem is, with this social media, the kids think this is all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.”

At the meeting, several frustrated parents turned to the children and asked why they had not alerted them.

“You’ve got to forget that ‘no snitching’ crap,” one parent, Joan Harrison, told the students.

The parent of a targeted child agreed. “Not one of you kids doesn’t matter to someone in this life,” she said.

Dayna Spence, a parent who organized the meeting, said she believed the students did not tell their parents because they were accustomed to such hateful rhetoric.

Michelle Ridgeway, a 1989 graduate of West Chester East who said she heard similar language when she was a student, said she insisted that her daughter attend another school in the district.

“I would not send my daughter of color there,” Ridgeway said.

She asked parents to protest by not sending their students to school until the administration apologizes and acts to implement a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying.

Hester Davenport, a community member who works in security at West Chester Henderson High School, said that would only hurt the students.

“You can’t show fear,” Davenport said, “or they’ll think they’ve won.”

Spence and others said they were disappointed that no school administrators or public officials attended the meeting.

She called for volunteers to work with her in creating a plan to address the climate at the school. She said they could bring it to an upcoming school board meeting, which many in the room vowed to attend.

The West Chester Area School District is one of the state’s larger districts, with about 12,000 students. About 1,300 attend East, one of three high schools in the district.

According to the district’s website, the student population is about 79 percent Caucasian, 8 percent Asian, 7 percent Hispanic, 5 percent African American, and 1 percent multiracial.

“We discuss racial issues all the time,” Scanlon said. “We try to build a very positive culture. We want our kids to be open to talk to adults in our school about anything they hear.”

Staff writer Michaelle Bond contributed to this article.