The 200-some students and staff gathered in the cafeteria of Quakertown Community High School Monday morning didn’t need to look far for a reminder of why they’d risen early.
Through a wall of windows, the football stadium loomed. It was there, in the fall of 2017, when middle-school students — and perhaps some adults — from the largely white Bucks County School District hurled rocks and racist taunts at visiting students from the majority black Cheltenham School District in Montgomery County.
News of the incident spread quickly across the region.
“While it was horrible and what happened to those students was horrific, it forced a conversation in our district and in our community about who we want to be,” said Rachel Girman, an 11th-grade english teacher at the high school and a driving force behind Monday morning’s gathering.
In another context, the day of service Girman helped organize wouldn’t stand out. Like folks across the country, Quakertown students signed up to volunteer at local nonprofits to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But this particular service day was the first of its kind in Quakertown. Over 80 percent of students are white and the ugly incident behind it framed everything.
Organizers called it the district’s “first annual” MLK day of service, and for senior Sarah Godshalk it represented the community’s commitment to do more than just acknowledge and move on from the racism revealed last school year.
“Yes we’re going to apologize. Yes we’re going to try to do something, but we’re going to keep doing something in the future to show this isn’t ok,” said Godshalk.
Quakertown’s response hasn’t always gotten high marks. In the aftermath, some Cheltenham students criticized the district for initially framing the incident as an isolated incident. Some also questioned the optics when the district held a snow make-up day on MLK Day 2018. Girman described that decision as a mistake.
Jollyfisher Ekpe, a Quakertown junior and one of the few black students participating in Monday’s event, says he felt some community members were overly defensive in the days after the incident — focusing more on media portrayals of the district than the root issue.
“I was a little embarrassed with the responses we were giving to the newspapers,” said Ekpe.
Talking to students today, it’s clear some still feel unfairly maligned by an incident they believe is uncharacteristic of their community.
Overall, though, Ekpe feels the community has responded well.
In addition to setting aside MLK Day as a day of service, the district started a “diversity and inclusion committee,” gave diversity training to its staff, and participated in an event where Quakertown and Cheltenham students paid tribute to Reverend King on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
Ekpe doesn’t see the new day of service as a hollow gesture, but instead an annual reminder of the district’s values.
“I really do think this event has substance and is able to broadcast that message: Quakertown’s not racist,” he said. “This is not us.”