Students at a South Jersey Christian school are getting sermons from the Bible on how to treat each other and classroom lessons on race relations after two notes with a racial slur were recently discovered in the locker of a black student.

Gloucester County Christian School officials are investigating the incident and trying to identify the culprit, said Pastor John Mark Turner, the campus administrator.  The school's board could impose a suspension or expulsion, he said.

Pastor John Mark Turner, campus administrator at Gloucester County Christian School in Sewell.
Gloucester County Christian School website
Pastor John Mark Turner, campus administrator at Gloucester County Christian School in Sewell.

"It's very disturbing," Turner said Tuesday.  "We want the kids to be polite and courteous and understand that their words hurt people."

The Camden County East Branch of the NAACP is also investigating the incident as a possible hate crime, said chapter president Lloyd D. Henderson. A similar incident was reported at the school several years ago targeting a black student, he said.

The school, with a predominantly white student body, is located in the Sewell section of Mantua Township on the grounds of a former Cold War-era Nike missile base. The base was one of a dozen constructed in the Philadelphia region in the '50s to defend the country against a possible Soviet bomb attack.

The private school enrolls more than 370 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It is operated by Hardingville Bible Church in Monroeville. Annual tuition for the 2017-18 school year began at $4,640 for elementary students and rose to $5,570 for high school students, with discounts for families that enroll more than one child, according to the school's website.

Henderson said the mother of a black student at the school complained to the NAACP last week after her son reported finding a second hate note on his locker on Oct. 18. The note said, "I hope you die n–,"  A note with the message was also left at the locker of the same student on Oct. 13, but the student disregarded that one, Henderson said.

The Mantua Police Department said that it was investigating a report of an incident at the school.

The student and his sibling, both eighth-grade honors students, have been withdrawn from the school and enrolled in a public school in a neighboring county where they live, said their mother, Sharon Jackson.

"We thought that was as near to being a perfect environment for our children," Jackson said Tuesday night. "I was very surprised that they would have to experience hatred in a Christian school. It's very disheartening."

Turner said he discussed the incident with students during chapel on Tuesday, reminding them to treat each other with Christian love as their faith teaches. The students attend chapel three times a week. The incident will also be a topic discussed in American history classes with a focus on civil rights, he said.

"We do care about all of our students, and I mean that sincerely," said Turner, a former classroom teacher. "We want students who come here to be welcomed and not to feel out of place."

About 7 percent of the school's students are black, Turner said. He attributed the incident to the current racial climate in the country.  Recent incidents in the region at schools, a restaurant, and other places have aroused racial tensions.

"Unfortunately, it's a culture now where you  believe you're not going to be slammed," Henderson said. "People believe they can be free now with their racist, biased attitudes."

According to the NAACP, the black student found the first note in his locker after soccer practice at school. The student balled it up, and tossed it away. When he received a second note five days later, he showed it to his parents. After meeting with school officials on Oct. 20, the parents said they withdrew their son and the sibling from the school and later reported the incident to police, Henderson said.

Turner said the school's principal attempted to identify the person who wrote the note by collecting writing samples. Students were not told the reason for the sample. The principal, however, was unable to match the note to a sample, he said.

A group of parents founded the school in 1964. It was placed within the ministry of Bethel Community Church in 1978, according to the school's website. It began with about 80 students in grades K-8.

Hardingville Bible Church took over the school in 1987. Turner, the church's senior pastor, and the school board, made up of a delegation of deacons, are in charge of operating the school.  Among the goals stated on its website, the school seeks "to work with parents and guardians to train Christian young men and women to be salt and light in their communities."