Racist texts ignite Coatesville furor

Tonya Thames Taylor , president of the Coatesville-area NAACP, speaks at Bethel A.M.E. Church. The chapter's 75th anniversary was marred by the controversy. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Tonya Thames Taylor , president of the Coatesville-area NAACP, speaks at Bethel A.M.E. Church. The chapter's 75th anniversary was marred by the controversy. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Posted: September 24, 2013

The recently resigned superintendent and an athletic director in the Coatesville Area School District exchanged numerous racist text messages about staff and students in June on school-issued cellphones, according to a published report.

Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan on Sunday confirmed his office was investigating the district and had received texts from school personnel. He would not identify the subjects or the nature of the texts.

The texts - lewd, sexist, and rife with the "n-word" - were discovered by a district employee transferring data from an old phone to a new device, said the report in the Daily Local News in West Chester.

One local official said he was shocked, and another said the texts did not reflect Chester County.

School district officials declined to comment because of the investigation. The school board is expected to formally vote Tuesday on the resignations of Richard Como, the superintendent, and Jim Donato, high school director of athletics and activities.

Neither Como nor Donato could be reached Sunday.

The president of the Coatesville Area NAACP, Tonya Thames Taylor, is a school board member. She said Sunday the board's position "is not silence; it's called responsibility."

The Coatesville Area School District is one of the most racially diverse in the Philadelphia suburbs and the most racially diverse in Chester County, with about 42 percent African American students, a school official said.

Parents had told The Inquirer if an investigation uncovered wrongdoing, the employees should be fired.

News of the existence of the texts broke on the same day the local NAACP chapter held its 75th anniversary celebration at historic Bethel A.M.E. Church on South First Avenue in South Coatesville to mark its involvement in civil rights.

About 80 people, mostly African American, sat in the pews to listen to speakers describe the continuing battle against injustice. They included Hogan, a member of the local chapter; State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, a West Philadelphia Democrat; and State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat whose district includes much of Chester County. The meeting lasted about two hours.

Taylor referred to the texts in her speech but did not go into detail. She said in a later interview that she was told about the text messages Aug. 16 and that the superintendent resigned 12 days later. She did not elaborate on how the school board handled the situation.

Chester County Commissioner Ryan Costello told the group, "This is not a reflection of our character."

Downingtown Mayor Josh Maxwell said he was shocked by the reported texts. "We don't have to read about it in newspapers to know things like that still exist in people's minds," he said.

(The texts were compiled by the West Chester Daily Local and are available online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/169978329/CASD-Transcript-Excerpts. Warning: the transcript contains racial slurs and extreme language that readers might find offensive.)

Ronjae Jones, 16, a student athlete at Coatesville High School, was at the NAACP celebration. Afterward, he said he knew the athletic director "very well" and said it was "pretty heartbreaking" to read about the texts.

"If something like this is happening now, I think the whole district needs to be under investigation," Jones added.

Herbert Outzs, 84, who attended Coatesville public schools and who has a granddaughter in the school system, said it made him "feel betrayed."

"I never had any idea anything like that was happening in the school district," Outzs said. He said racism was prevalent in the district decades ago, adding, "I guess it's still burning there."

Hogan said in a statement provided to The Inquirer on Sunday that his office became aware of "certain telephone text messages" from district personnel over the course of an investigation into the school district. Those text messages were turned over to his office, he said, adding that he couldn't comment further on the matter.

Their release by the Daily Local News followed several weeks of confusion surrounding the departures of Como and Donato. Como, superintendent since 2005, resigned abruptly just a week into the school year and was followed by Donato.

School district officials for some time didn't return calls for comment on the departures - until a school board committee meeting two weeks ago.

The Coatesville Area NAACP wants to be included in the selection process of hiring the district's next superintendent, Taylor said.


sabdur-rahman@phillynews.com

@sabdurr

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