Racial incidents rock area schools. Now what?

Students protest outside Coatesville Area High School on Friday.

Racist texts. A fight before homeroom. Cheerleaders called the N-word. A black doll hanging by a tie. Pumpkins carved with a swastika and a reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Student protests. Police in the hallways.

That was just this month. In three area school districts.

Across the region, schools are grappling with a wave of disturbing racial incidents and attempting to chart a peaceful path forward.

But experts say teachers and administrators should brace for more clashes – and prepare students to survive and counteract them – as the nation’s racially charged politics continues to turn Americans and their children against one another.

“This is not just a one-time incident. We have a problem,” Quakertown Superintendent Bill Harner said last week, speaking about his own district.

Racial Conflict at Local High Schools

Quakertown and Cheltenham

At Quakertown Community High School on Oct. 6, racial slurs and hateful comments were hurled at Cheltenham High School cheerleaders during a football game. Some students also said that Cheltenham’s schools buses were pelted with rocks. Quakertown Superintendent Bill Harner said the perpetrators were a small group of middle-school students, but added “This is not just a one-time incident. We have a problem.”

Washington Township

A fight between white and black students broke out at Washington Township High School on Wednesday, a day after a text-message exchange among white students that used the N-word went viral. On Thursday, about 170 students — black and white — skipped classes and staged an hours-long sit-in at the school to protest the racist texting. Some students said previous racial incidents have not been adequately addressed by school officials.

Coatesville

Several hundred students at Coatesville Area High School students walked out of school Friday morning in a protest against racism prompted by a posting by schoolmates on social media showing pumpkins carved with a swastika and KKK on them. Superintendent Cathy Taschner says the district will “exercise its full authority” to send a message that the picture and carvings are not acceptable. Earlier this month, a black baby doll was found hanging in a Coatesville High School locker with a tie around its neck, an incident Taschner called a “foolish prank,” not a hate crime.

SOURCES: Staff reports; Pa. Dept. of Education; N.J. Dept. of Education
Staff Graphic

He was responding to an Oct. 6 incident in which Cheltenham High School cheerleaders were subjected to racial epithets during a football game at Quakertown Community High School. Rocks were reportedly thrown at Cheltenham school buses.

Harner said the perpetrators were middle-school students.

But Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist who helped lead a group-therapy session at Cheltenham on Monday, said Cheltenham students told him that wasn’t entirely accurate.

“They said the whole story hadn’t been told,” said Stevenson, executive director of the Racial Empowerment Collective at the University of Pennsylvania. “It wasn’t just youth hurling racial epithets. There were adults from the Quakertown community.”

Elsewhere, hundreds of students walked out of Coatesville Area High School on Friday to protest photos of racist pumpkin carvings that current and former students posted on social media. Earlier this month, a black baby doll was found hanging in a high school locker.

In South Jersey, Washington Township High School was still recovering Friday from several days of unrest after a hallway scuffle in response to a text-message exchange among white students using the N-word that went viral.

In Quakertown, school district officials have reached out to the Peace Center in Langhorne to develop a racial tolerance and conflict resolution program.

“Middle-school and high school students need to be talking about this,” said Barbara Simmons, the Peace Center’s executive director. “Kids are being drawn into groupthink when it comes to white nationalism, racism, intolerance, and hatred. If we don’t intervene as adults immediately, we run the risk that this kind of behavior gets normalized.”

Stevenson said an effective program to combat racism in schools would prepare parents and students for the intensity of racial conflicts that can flare without warning, because, he said, “We can expect more of this.”

Simmons said the Peace Center keeps a spreadsheet of bias incidents in Bucks County. Since last year’s election of Donald Trump, it is now five pages long. She believes President Trump has exacerbated the problem, particularly after the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August when he labeled some among the white supremacists as “very fine people.”

“Things like that give the white nationalists a green light,” Simmons said.

Nancy Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it’s hard to know whether the recent outbreak of racist incidents in area schools represents an actual uptick.

“It may be that people who are taunting, people who are performing hate crimes seemingly have become emboldened over the last 12 to 15 months,” said Baron-Baer. “It may be those that are the victims or opposed to that behavior feel that they must speak out.”

The ADL recorded 20 bias incidents in the region’s schools in 2016. This year, the organization has responded to approximately 30 incidents, including 10 since the start of the 2017-18 school year.

The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church, said he’s not surprised at the recent incidents in schools after the rise of Trump, whose election has emboldened white supremacists and white nationalists.

“The president sets a national tone,” Tyler said. “By what they say and what they do, they show what is acceptable and not.”

Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, said her office has seen a rise in calls about bullying and harassment generally, including reports of racially based, national-origin based, and disability-related bullying across the state.

McInerney, however, cautioned against blaming it on politicians in Washington.

“I think we need to be careful not to play the ‘Trump’ card and conclude that his administration is to blame for all this,” she said. “That approach ignores the broader preexisting problems of racially motivated incidents of bullying and harassment in our schools that have not been adequately addressed.”

Maureen Costello, executive director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, said the project conducted surveys last year in which teachers reported heightened fear and anxiety among children of color.

Costello said the tolerance project didn’t ask in the surveys about Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign or after the election. Still, teachers responding to the surveys insisted that Trump’s name was invoked in much of the bullying, she said.

“When teachers tried to tell students, ‘We don’t use this kind of language,’ the kids would answer, ‘Well if a president or presidential candidate can use it, why can’t we?’ ” Costello said.

In the first three weeks of October, Costello said, there have been 50 bias incidents in schools across the country, by her count.

“We had hoped that things would die down after the election,” Costello said. “If anything, they’ve gotten worse.”

Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County NAACP, holds out some optimism.

She said that Washington Township has experienced decades of racism. She plans to serve on the township’s new task force tackling race. The NAACP is also conducting its own investigation into the incidents last week and will provide diversity training for the district.

“It’s a bad situation,” Winters said, “but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Staff writers Melanie Burney and Craig R. McCoy contributed to this report.