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Racist and Homophobic Incidents At Local Public Schools Draw Concern from Administrators, Anti-Hate Groups

Hal Conte

Hal Conte

Hal Conte

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From Quakertown to Council Rock to Neshaminy, a steady stream of hateful and racial incidents has roiled Bucks school districts throughout the fall, including hateful shouts, stone-throwing, and swastikas scrawled on bathroom walls, leaving administrators and communities scrambling for a suitable response.

As doors were opened across the country for a new year of learning, the sign of Neshaminy’s Herbert Hoover Elementary School was found defaced with a racist message: “F**k n*****. No n***** allowed,” alongside an offensive and vulgar drawing.

In September, pictures of swastikas and anti-gay slogans in Council Rock were distributed in online chatrooms, just one month after the school had to contend with a crop of toxic Instagram accounts using the school’s insignia to spread abuse and racialist content.

Soon afterward, a student wore a confederate flag shirt to class in defiance of the rules, and another flag had to be removed from the wall of a classroom.

In October, a normally friendly football game between Quakertown High School and Cheltenham ended with intolerant rhetoric and stones hurled at the Cheltenham team’s school bus.

“It’s always been here,” said William Harner, superintendent of Quakertown School District.

But, he added, these incidents have “taken the mask off” a problem that has been brewing for generations.

Since last year’s presidential election, reports of hate crimes and hate incidents have surged across the country, causing alarm in school districts and among professionals like Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an antiracist and anti-hate legal organization.

“I hope this is temporary,” she said. “There were 90 [reported] incidents in October in the nation… Three or four years ago, people weren’t as overtly racist.” She said that an increased number of reports doesn’t necessarily mean that the number of events has gone up. “Schools don’t usually report incidents.” She explained that with the increasing use of social media platforms to document hate, Bucks residents may only be beginning to realize a long-standing problem.

When asked if the recent expressions of bigotry are a new problem or one that is only now surfacing, Susan O’ Grady, Council Rock community relations specialist, replied, “we cannot speak for the larger region. We have experienced isolated incidents in our own district and have taken proactive measures to address each while viewing them as teachable moments for our school community.”

O’ Grady denied a request for records of prior racial incidents, saying that they were discipline matters that may contain personal information.

Costello and Harner made it clear that not everyone who commits acts of hate and bigotry are necessarily bad people. “The students who were punished were removed from athletic events [but] they’re good students, good athletes,” Harner said. “A lot of the time, the perpetrator’s intention is to “be funny” or “gain attention,” Costello clarified. “What they don’t realize is that the impact is so serious.”

Acts of hate often have repercussions that reach far beyond those immediately targeted. “Kids are embarrassed,” Harner sighed. “The student council from Quakertown put out a video saying “this is not us.” “The entire school and the entire community is injured,” Costello concluded.

Bucks County has had a fraught history with race and bigotry. Levittown, which stretches into four Lower Bucks municipalities, was founded explicitly as a whites-only community. William and Daisy Myers, the first African-Americans to settle in Levittown, were met with mob violence and attacks by residents upon moving in to their home.

“These incidents don’t come out of nowhere,” Costello asserted. “They have a context. It’s really important to always connect the present to the past and the past to the present.”

“We have a very robust community,” Harner said. “[But] history is written by the victors. There’s a lot of emotions around this issue… We’re entering into a place of looking in the mirror.”

According to the SPLC, a surprising number of the recent hate crimes and hate incidents have occurred in white, affluent communities. “There’s a kind of copycatism,” Costello noted.

The increasingly public expression of bigotry in Bucks County has attracted attention from the national press. “We were doing our investigation and the news media contacted us. It started with a phone call from Fox News,” Harner explained.

When asked what schools should do to combat bigotry, Costello said that administrators, teachers, and faculty should denounce the act, affirm the values of the school and take steps to rebuild.

Both Quakertown and Council Rock have taken steps to prevent future incidents, with the former considering any expression of racism or hate as grounds for suspension. The latter is reviewing strategies such as “collaborative discourse with our high school students on the topic of inclusiveness and targeted elementary level lessons on respect and acceptance,” according to O’ Grady.

The districts are also partnering with recognized experts on hate, racism, bigotry, aggression and violence.

O’Grady said that Council Rock is having the Peace Center, a Langhorne conflict resolution and anti-violence organization, train all Council Rock employees “to recognize and strategically address intolerance and racism. This training will be ongoing over the next two years.”

“In addition, we have partnered with both the Anti-Defamation League and Minding Your Mind (a nonprofit that focuses on mental health awareness) for school-based assembly programs to bolster and underscore our message of acceptance. We also administered a climate survey for staff, parents, and students to help us better understand stakeholder perceptions around diversity and tolerance. The survey was designed with the assistance of Hanover, a nationally recognized research company.”

Harner said that Quakertown High School’s principal met with Peace Center representatives for advice on how to address the problem.

When asked if the school districts were coordinating efforts to prevent hate crimes, Harner explained that a monthly superintendent meeting was on the agenda, but “right now, it is just a bunch of individual school district efforts.”

Quakertown has also held an 8th grade assembly to discuss the matter. Harner revealed that “some [parents] have wondered what we will teach our daughters or sons, so I can keep them away from it.”

Although a few residents seem wary of discussing the topic of hate, particularly after a rash of open bigotry, Costello said that there is a definite educational value. “It’s a moment for a community to say, “Who are we? Are we a people who ignore this or come together and say, “this is not who we are?”

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Racist and Homophobic Incidents At Local Public Schools Draw Concern from Administrators, Anti-Hate Groups