Coatesville official: 'I knew I had to do the right thing'

Teresa Powell and Abdallah Hawa at a school board meeting. They first saw the texts.
Teresa Powell and Abdallah Hawa at a school board meeting. They first saw the texts. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 28, 2013

The task before Abdallah Hawa on Aug. 15 could not have been more mundane.

Jim Donato, Coatesville Area High School's athletic director, had been hounding Hawa for months to replace his white, district-issued BlackBerry, a phone he complained looked "girly."

When Donato finally got a new one, it fell to Hawa, the district's technology director, to wipe data from the old phone.

Hawa switched on the phone and scrolled through the text messages to start deleting. One word - a racial slur - caught his eye.

N-.

He stopped scrolling.

"All should just have whatever first names they want . . . then last name is N-!" the message read.

What he decided to do with that message, and dozens more like it, set into motion the resignations of Donato and Superintendent Richard Como, ignited national outrage, and shocked a school community that had long touted its diverse background.

"It was very difficult for me when I found [the texts]," Hawa said in an interview Thursday, his first since the scandal broke. "But right away, I knew I had to do the right thing."

What Hawa didn't know at the time was that he also had been a target of the racist invectives. Only days later did the 52-year-old Lebanese American see the texts calling him "camel jockey" and "Arab control."

In a 45-minute interview at school district headquarters, Hawa spoke for the first time about his shock and disgust at the texts - and his decision to report them. He was joined by Teresa Powell, the district's middle schools director, and the administrator he decided to show the texts that August morning.

After discovering the messages, the pair pieced together a transcript from Donato's phone - messages referring to women as "pieces," rife with racial epithets and mocking nicknames for school employees. Many of the racist conversations included replies sent from Como's phone. Both men have since dropped from public view.

Hawa is a Coatesville graduate and has worked at the district for 16 years. He said the messages referring to him stirred emotional memories of his childhood in war-torn Lebanon, and of the bombing that killed his father and younger sister in 1976, just weeks before the family was set to leave for America.

"It was hard," he said somberly, as he grabbed a tissue from a nearby box. "I was very hurt."

Powell, a mother of three who began working at the district as a teacher in 1996, said she was heartbroken after reading the texts.

"One would never guess that senior-level administrators would be participating in anything like this," she said.

On Aug. 16, Powell compiled a list of about 15 offensive messages from Donato's phone and texted school board member Tonya Thames-Taylor, warning her that they had information that could "potentially devastate the community."

After turning the texts over to Thames-Taylor, the two "tried to give the board time to do the right thing," Powell said.

On Aug. 29, Como and Donato resigned after the school board informed them it was planning to fire them.

On Sept. 10, the board confirmed the men's resignations after weeks of speculation.

Meanwhile, Powell and Hawa, unsatisfied by the board's actions, contacted the county district attorney and the Daily Local News.

"We thought surely that with the evidence no one could condone it," Powell said.

On Sunday, the newspaper printed excerpts of the offensive texts.

Two days later, the board voted to accept Como's and Donato's resignations, to the chagrin of many community members who had asked the board to fire them outright. The board also named Powell acting assistant superintendent.

At that meeting, Powell and Hawa revealed themselves as the officials who had discovered the texts. Their announcement drew gasps from the audience.

In the interview, Powell and Hawa said they considered the possibility that they could lose their jobs for leaking the text messages - but ultimately decided to come forward.

"I wouldn't be able to sleep if I didn't come forth to help our children," Powell said.

After the meeting, Powell said, her 16-year-old daughter came up to her.

"She said, 'Mom, I'm proud of you,' " Powell recalled Thursday, her eyes filling with tears. "Now, you tell me I didn't do the right thing."


awhelan@philly.com610-313-8112 @aubreyjwhelan

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