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Officials address threatening note sent to Swarthmore families, but reveal few details

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After racist letters and photos were circulated among students at Strath Haven High School, the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District held an informational meeting on Jan. 2, 2019. More than 400 residents showed up to listen and have their voices heard. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

After racist letters and photos were circulated among students at Strath Haven High School, the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District held an informational meeting on Jan. 2, 2019. More than 400 residents showed up to listen and have their voices heard. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Updated: Jan. 4, 2019 at 7:20 a.m.

At a tightly-run town hall meeting, school and police officials from the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District in Delaware County urged unity and civility as the community grapples with a threatening note allegedly sent by teenagers to four local families.

Authorities did not, however, reveal much new information to the capacity crowd packed into Strath Haven High School’s auditorium, citing a need to keep matters private as the Delaware County District Attorney investigates.

In mid-December, police say, four Swarthmore families received letters saying they’d be removed from their homes and perhaps killed if they didn’t leave the town. Crediting President Donald Trump, the letter-writers said there was “now a law against filthy nutheads like yourself living in this country.” It was signed by “Donald and his crew, specifically Mike Pence.”

“The girls’ attorney and local police told Philly.com that all recipients of the note were white.

However, a Swarthmore resident who says she received one of the notes disputes that claim. Sarah Sidiqi says she was born in Afghanistan and was forced to flee the country with her family due to the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s. She does not believe the letter writers targeted her specifically because of her heritage, but says the note still stung.

“We were so poor and lost everything,” Sidiqi wrote in an e-mail. “This letter brought back so many difficult memories and showed such disregard for what immigrants face. ”

A widely circulated social media post cropped the letter next to a picture of two people wearing white hoods reminiscent of those found on Ku Klux Klan robes. That picture was taken on Halloween, said David Splain, police chief of Nether Providence Township. It is unrelated to the letter, he added.

At Wednesday’s town hall, Splain, Strath Haven principal Kristopher Brown, attorney Kyle Berman, and district superintendent Lisa Palmer addressed parents, students, and community members. The audience also heard from James Mason of the Media area branch of the NAACP and Joan Duvall-Flynn, president of the NAACP’s Pennsylvania chapter.

Berman told the audience that the school district had no jurisdiction over the students who allegedly wrote the note because they wrote and distributed it after school hours and off school grounds. He warned, however, that any students who retaliated during school hours would face discipline from the district.

Splain gave a detailed account of how the case was handed from local police to the District Attorney’s office, but said he couldn’t say much more about the investigation.

Superintendent Palmer urged calm.

“I’m calling for civility,” she said. “We won’t allow ourselves to be defined by events like this.”

Palmer also defended the format of the meeting. Officials spoke for about an hour, but did not allow live questions. They instead encouraged people to submit hand-written notes or e-mail.

“I did not think an open community conversation would be productive at this moment,” Palmer said.

The district also disallowed those attending, including reporters, from taking photos or recording audio or video at the event.

Margaret Betz, who has a child at Strath Haven High School, said the meeting didn’t address the root problems behind the note.

“I would have liked to have heard more recognition that we are living in times that are terrifying for minorities,” she said.

Janelle Berry, also a parent of Strath Haven students, appreciated officials’ efforts. Still, she’s eager for resolution, and withholding judgement until she hears all the information.

“We heard about being civil and the whole nine yards, which I totally agree with,” she said. “But I really just want to know what the outcome’s going to be if the students are found to be guilty.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that one of the recipients of the letter says she is from Afghanistan.

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