In scandal's aftermath, Coatesville school district has some defenders

Parents and children line the sidewalk around Scott Middle School at the Second Annual Coatesville Back to School Friday.
Parents and children line the sidewalk around Scott Middle School at the Second Annual Coatesville Back to School Friday. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 26, 2014

Last month, Joshua Mensah shared a meal with some of his soon-to-be Cornell University classmates from the Philadelphia area.

The annual freshman send-off, at a Drexel Hill country club, focused on his new school. But Mensah found himself defending his old school district in Chester County: A parent said she had heard bad things about Coatesville.

Mensah knew all too well what she meant. A year ago, hundreds of pages of racist and sexist text messages between Coatesville's superintendent and athletic director came to light. The messages incessantly used the n-word to describe black students, called a Lebanese American employee a "camel jockey," a Hispanic coach "Taco," women "pieces," and other staffers "Jews."

Mensah, who is black, had met Superintendent Richard Como the winter before the scandal, and liked him. After reading the texts, Mensah, an honors student, realized that if he had graduated a year earlier, he would have collected his diploma from Como. And he wondered if the superintendent would have disparaged him privately, too.

"After all that success," he said, "I thought the people in charge would just think of me as Joshua N-word."

On Monday, classes resume in the Coatesville Area School District, a school system trying to leave behind perhaps its most tumultuous year ever.

In the scandal's aftermath, Como and the athletic director, Jim Donato, resigned and vanished. Protests erupted. The school board, accused of being slow to act, faced personal attacks at meetings. The district appointed two interim superintendents before hiring a full-time replacement. At one time, the turmoil was so paralyzing that basic supply orders went unfilled, broken copiers went unrepaired, fraying textbooks went unmended.

The impact still ripples. Federal and state authorities are monitoring the school district's relationship with the community. Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan continues an investigation into the district's finances and management - one that became public with the discovery of the text messages - and has repeatedly called the district the most uncooperative public entity he had ever encountered. Relations between the school board and the community are still strained.

But there has been an upside. Parents who became more involved remain engaged, attending more board meetings and participating in activist groups that emerged from the scandal.

"I knew I had to make a stand - to be an example to my kids," said Debbie Willett, a single mother who has children and a granddaughter enrolled in the district and joined a parent group that meets monthly with school officials. "As awful as the situation was, it really pulled the community together."

 

A "girly' phone

Como would likely be welcoming students back this year - his contract was to have expired in 2017 - had Donato not thought his district-owned cellphone looked "girly" and exchanged it for a new one last summer. When Abdallah Hawa, the district's technology director, prepared to wipe data from Donato's old phone, he noticed a series of offensive text messages.

One, for instance, referred to an African American staffer as an "ape."

Hawa alerted middle schools director Teresa Powell, who told Tonya Thames Taylor, then a school board member and president of Coatesville's NAACP chapter.

Como's and Donato's resignation letters soon followed, but with no public explanation of or reference to the texts. Then Hawa and Powell leaked the messages to the District Attorney's Office and to reporters, concerned that the truth would not come out. Outrage ensued.

The texts hit hard in Coatesville, a district of 7,000 students - half of them nonwhite - that prides itself on its diversity. The controversy was the latest in a series for a steel town long past its post-World War II glory. Only this time the nation took notice, shocked that school administrators could use such language, even privately.

When Como ascended to superintendent from high school principal in 2005, the district had pinned its hopes on him. The board hired Como - who was liked in and knew the district - after three successive superintendents had resigned amid controversy, including claims of mismanagement and lack of leadership ability.

Then Como was gone, too. The 68-year-old now travels between his Coatesville home and a house in Florida.

Neither he nor Donato has faced the community they left in turmoil or spoken publicly about the texts or their departures.

Neither responded to repeated interview requests from The Inquirer.

Como's lawyer, Paul J. Rubino, of Paoli, said he had told Como not to talk to reporters until the district attorney finishes his investigation.

As they did many inside and outside the community, the texts upset Mensah, the Cornell-bound Coatesville grad. But he was quick to forgive.

He said it was foolish to judge someone based on text messages. Mensah recalled waiting outside school for a ride after drama club the previous winter when Como spotted him.

"He immediately stopped me and asked what I was doing outside in the cold," Mensah said. "He had good-hearted actions in him. In my mind, I thought good-hearted people can say bad things. That's why I forgave him."

A biracial mother in the district, who spoke anonymously out of concern that her school-aged daughter would be harassed, shared Mensah's sentiments and said she believed Como was not racist. She said he often encouraged her son to strive toward his athletic and academic goals.

"He was really like a mentor to my child," the woman said.

Others are not sold.

Rochelle Birckett, whose son is a senior at Coatesville Area Senior High School, said she was "appalled" but not surprised by the text messages in a district she described as racially and financially polarized.

Iris Holmes, who has six grandchildren in the district, said: "We entrust our children to their teachers and administrators to be protected, to be taught, to be nurtured. We don't send them to school to be degraded, looked down on."

District turmoil

The low point came in September, when hundreds of residents packed a school board meeting and demanded the board fire Como and Donato rather than letting them resign.

The board's president, Neil Campbell, told the crowd the resignations would prevent a legal battle. After board members approved every agenda item in a single vote, they left without a word, leaving the crowd confused and feeling disenfranchised.

Hogan has accused the board of trying to hinder his criminal investigation, something board members have denied. He has also accused the board of trying to intimidate employees called as witnesses. (A lawyer for Hawa and Powell said both continued to feel harassed at work and were considering legal action against the district.)

Hogan is investigating allegations that Como and Donato were involved in a possible kickback scheme with football camps. There also are questions about whether Como hired employees and gave raises without board approval, and accusations that the school board solicitor has overbilled the district.

"There are some things that are pretty questionable," said James Fox, school board vice president, referring to Como's actions. "Whether they're coming out as being illegal, that would be for the D.A. to figure out."

Another new beginning

Many in the district - including board members, teachers, and community members - have rested their hopes on Cathy Taschner, the new superintendent. In addition to her normal duties, she is making sure the district follows recommendations from the U.S. Department of Justice, the state's civil rights commission, and the state branch of the NAACP on improving the school environment.

Audra Ritter, president of the Coatesville Area Teachers Association, said Taschner had listened to teachers' concerns and suggestions. She called Como "very dedicated to Coatesville," but a less hands-on superintendent.

For Mensah, the texting scandal is long behind, something he forgave almost a year ago. He says he is still proud of his school and invested in its success. His brother is starting kindergarten in Coatesville on Monday.

At the Cornell freshman send-off last month, Mensah assured the parent who had heard bad things about Coatesville that they had nothing to do with the students. Some of his former classmates will attend Princeton and Yale this fall. One won a state wrestling championship.

"I listed 20 things," he said. "If there's anything that will change from the scandal, it's that Coatesville tries harder to prove that it's a great school."


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond

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