Coatesville schools 'punishing' whistle-blowers, lawyer says

Posted: October 05, 2013

Coatesville school administrators are "punishing" the two whistle-blowers who exposed racist and sexist text messages from two school officials by limiting their access and handing their job duties to others, their lawyer claimed Thursday.

Abdallah Hawa - the technology director, who found the messages - can no longer access district computers and saw his department turned over to a private company, lawyer Samuel Stretton said. Teresa Powell, the administrator to whom Hawa first showed the texts, was removed from a hiring committee and lost other duties, he said.

"There is no reason for this other than punishing them for speaking out," Stretton said in a letter to the school board.

District Solicitor James Ellison called the accusations "baseless and reckless."

"Mr. Hawa's access has not been changed. Dr. Powell's duties have not been changed," Ellison said in a statement. "Each of them continues to hold their important roles in the district leadership."

The allegations reflected the ongoing fallout in the 7,210-student district since the resignations last month of Superintendent Richard Como and athletic director James Donato over scores of racist text messages.

The harassment claims surfaced the same day that about two dozen people rallied in front of district headquarters demanding that the school board resign, and a state lawmaker proposed legislation to prevent a similar scandal from erupting.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman of Chester County said his bill would amend the school code to require that a superintendent be immediately suspended without pay and face a public hearing if evidence emerged that he or she discriminated against staff, students, or parents. If the claim were true, the superintendent would be fired.

Dinniman, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, said he planned to submit a bill this month.

Dinniman said his proposal came from community members' concern that the Coatesville board did not tell the public the reasons behind Como's and Donato's resignations soon enough. The board said it allowed them to resign to avoid lengthy or costly litigation. "We want the school board not to use the excuse of legality," Dinniman said.

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said such a bill was unnecessary.

"We think there's adequate provisions in the current law to deal with this situation," he said. The state's code of conduct for educators stresses the need for respecting civil rights and treating everyone equally.

Violators can be fired or suspended, Buckheit said, and anyone can file a confidential complaint with the state Department of Education.

School board member Tonya Thames Taylor said the proposal showed that school board members did what they could under the law. "This also confirms that the board acted with integrity and fairness for all who were involved," she said.

But Stretton said his clients have not been treated fairly at all, saying there has been a pattern of harassment against Hawa and Powell - starting with district officials' demands to access system passwords over the weekend.

Stretton said district officials went through Hawa's desk Sunday and, on Monday, shut him out of a technology department meeting - claims that Ellison has denied.

In his letter, Stretton urged the board to dismiss Ellison and acting Superintendent Angelo Romaniello at Tuesday's board meeting.


awhelan@philly.com

610-313-8112

@aubreyjwhelan

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