Report on racism roils Main Line school district

As Wednesday’s packed town hall would suggest, a recent report on racism in the Haverford Township School District has residents’ attention.

The report, penned by a local activist group called H-CAN, detailed a series of anonymous complaints about racist language, offensive graffiti, discriminatory comments, and “microaggressions” in this upscale Delaware County suburb. It also alleged discriminatory discipline practices and bemoaned the underrepresentation of black students in advanced classes.

On Wednesday, H-CAN presented its findings at a standing-room-only meeting and school district officials got a chance to respond.

Though calm pervaded the town hall — perhaps because of a format that forbade testimony and required residents to ask questions via notecards — the report has clearly struck a communal nerve. In interviews afterward, some residents reaffirmed the problems outlined by H-CAN and others rebutted them, claiming the attention caused by the report and subsequent news coverage has painted the community in a false light.

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Wadiya Ferguson, who is black, said her family had been racially profiled several times, including one incident where FBI agents arrived at her house because someone at school claimed her son sympathized with terrorists. And she thinks black boys, like her son, are routinely singled out for bad behavior.

“Every time something happens, it’s not the white kid who gets it. It’s the black kid,” said Ferguson.

Her friend, Emily Bailey, agreed, and said she’s received worse treatment while living in the Haverford area than she has in more racially mixed communities.

“It’s definitely disproportionate in this particular township,” said Bailey, who added that middle school administrators respond well to complaints, but that she will move districts before her son reaches high school.

Despite increasing diversity, about 84 percent of students in Haverford’s public school system are white.

District superintendent Maureen Reusche said administrators were hurt by the allegations detailed in the H-CAN report, and are trying to respond. District officials distributed a 27-bullet-point flyer at the town hall listing various inclusion initiatives.

The district, for instance, is trying to boost minority hiring and recently joined an affinity group that hosts a job fair for aspiring teachers of color. It also works with consultants — one from Villanova and another from the University of Pennsylvania — to train staff on “racial empowerment” and “cultural diversity.”

But in a moment of candor, Reusche also said the report angered her because she felt it extrapolated from few allegations to create a false sense of pervasive discrimination.

“That is not representative of the district as a whole,” Reusche said of the report. “It’s mixed feelings for me — sadness that someone would experience that, but a little bit of anger that that doesn’t characterize our entire system.”

A presentation from the local police department hit back harder.

Though H-CAN’s work focused on local schools, it also included data that suggested local officers disproportionately pulled over black drivers.

Police Chief John Viola gave a lengthy talk devoted entirely to debunking the statistical method behind H-CAN’s claim.

The report said that 29 percent of people pulled over for traffic violations in Haverford Township are black, which Viola said is true. H-CAN then compared that number to the percentage of black residents in the township (3.3 percent) and Delaware County overall (21 percent).

Viola said the authors should have looked at the demographic makeup of motorists who pass through the township, although he did not actually provide that data or say if it was accessible. He did present data showing that when township officers pull over township residents, about ten percent of them are African-American.

Some who attended the meeting appreciated the messaging from local leaders.

Maria Pardini, a Haverford native and real estate agent, acknowledged that racist incidents “happen in every school district.” But she refuted, strongly, the notion that Haverford schools are less welcoming than others.

“I coach in this community. I’m a parent in this community. My children play sports in this community. I work in this community, and that’s not what I see,” said Pardini. “That’s what’s upsetting to me.”

Others, though, felt the meeting was too sterile to get at the real issues and resented what they perceived as defensiveness from the chief of police and superintendent.

Said Bailey of Superintendent Reusche:

“She was bothered and angered that the truth is out.”

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