Coatesville parents demand firing of officials over racist texts

Ron Suber stands in the middle of East Lincoln Highway with a sign protesting Richard Como, the Coatesville area school superintendent. Como and high school athletic director Jim Donato resigned in August; since then, messages they sent have come to light.
Ron Suber stands in the middle of East Lincoln Highway with a sign protesting Richard Como, the Coatesville area school superintendent. Como and high school athletic director Jim Donato resigned in August; since then, messages they sent have come to light. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 25, 2013

The Coatesville Area School District's board is set to vote Tuesday night to accept the resignations of two school officials whose text-message exchanges - rife with racial and sexual slurs - surfaced over the weekend.

But parents with children in the district say the conduct of former Superintendent Richard Como and high school athletic director Jim Donato is nothing short of a betrayal - and are planning to pack Tuesday's meeting to demand that the board fire the men outright.

"I am so lost for words," said Ann Wertz, who has two children in the district, which has nearly 7,000 students. "It's so inexcusable."

Sent over 18 days in June and posted online this weekend by the West Chester Daily Local News, the leaked messages show Como and Donato often gleefully exchanging racial and sexual slurs.

In more than a dozen texts, the men referred to students and faculty with the n-word, and used insulting and demeaning language to describe women, Jewish people, and people of Middle Eastern and Hispanic descent, according to the transcript posted online.

A source with knowledge of the text-message transcripts said that what has been made public represents a fraction of the messages between the men. The source, however, said the messages that were released are perhaps the most damaging.

Como and Donato also appear to discuss funds raised by the district's athletic booster clubs, and at one point refer to one man as "a major sneak" and mention a "kickback," according to the transcript.

The text messages have come to light in the midst of an investigation of the school district, which Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan said was continuing.

In a statement released Monday, district officials called the texts "sickening and unacceptable," and said Como and Donato resigned after the school board informed them it was initiating legal termination proceedings.

It was the first confirmation that Como's and Donato's resignations were tied to the offensive texts.

Both men stepped down Aug. 29; Como announced his resignation in a post on the district website.

For nearly two weeks, district officials refused to comment on the resignations.

At a school board committee meeting Sept. 10, board members confirmed Como's and Donato's resignations, and dropped a bombshell on a room packed with teachers and parents: The District Attorney's Office was investigating the school district.

The scope of the district attorney's investigation is unknown. The district is also conducting its own internal investigation.

On Monday, the board elaborated, saying board member Tanya Thames-Taylor received copies of the texts Aug. 18 and shared them with other members and the district solicitor, James Ellison.

Thames-Taylor did not return a call for comment Monday.

After a preliminary investigation, the board began a legal termination process, according to Monday's statement. Como and Donato resigned 11 days after the board received the text messages.

Ellison said Monday evening that Como would not lose his pension even if the district terminated him instead of approving his resignation. Donato was not of retirement age and has no pension, he said.

Even so, many parents feel that firing Como instead of accepting his resignation would "make a difference to us," parent Liz Muirhead said.

In the statement, school officials said it did not appear that any other employees were involved in the texts. The board also announced that it was ordering sensitivity training for employees.

Como worked for the district for more than 20 years and had served as superintendent for eight. Efforts to reach him at home Monday were unsuccessful. Donato also could not be reached.

District students and their parents expressed shock and disappointment Monday.

"We didn't do nothing to them. They were friendly to our faces and then they talked about us behind our backs," said Zhaqweyza Armstrong, 16, a Coatesville High junior who is a member of the track and dance teams. "Coatesville is like a family. If you talk about one of us, you're talking about all of us."

On Lincoln Highway, near the district's main campus, Ron Suber stood next to his gray Ford F-150, which was covered with signs that read: "Students Rally"; "Where Is the $"; "Investigate the CASD"; and "CASD Must Go!"

Suber, who described himself as a concerned taxpayer with nephews in the school system, held a bullhorn and another sign himself - reading "Como Worse Than KKK."

Some people honked in support, flashed thumbs-up signs through their car windows, or waved.

Two high school-age girls walked by, and Suber called out to them: "You should be protesting. This is about what's happening to y'all."

By Monday evening, 785 people had signed a petition on Change.org calling for the board to deny Como's and Donato's resignation requests.

"We demand that the retirement request not be voted upon until the scheduled school board meeting after any and all internal and external investigations are completed, both have met their contractual obligations and have been cleared of any wrongdoing," the petition reads.

District parents are struggling to come to terms with the sentiments expressed in the text messages - and to parse through rumors that continue to swirl about the ongoing investigation, which Hogan said Monday would "take a while."

"There are lots of rumors, lots," Wertz said Monday. "And slowly, those rumors are showing truth."


BY THE NUMBERS

6,891

Students in the Coatesville Area School District

11

Number of schools

47.4

Percentage of the student body who are minorities


>Inquirer.com

Read excerpts from the texting transcript at www.inquirer.com/texts


Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112, at awhelan@philly.com or on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

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