Viral video puts spotlight on Cheltenham High as students now speak out

 (Avi Wolfman-Arent / WHYY)

(Avi Wolfman-Arent / WHYY)

A student brawl at Cheltenham High School that led to four arrests and left 10 staff members injured continues to weigh heavily on the collective minds of this suburban community just north of Philadelphia.

On Friday, Philly.com published an anonymous teacher survey that documented festering staff concerns over school climate and safety

On Sunday, it was students’ turn to address the issues facing their beleaguered school. At a special teen town hall, about 30 students discussed safety concerns, lack of discipline, and racial tensions laid bare by the fight and reaction to it.

“We are under the impression that there are no consequences,” said Cheltenham senior Valerie Melecio. “And that’s where we think we can do whatever we want.”

During the forum itself, held at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, students were asked not to share their names as a way to facilitate open conversation. Several spoke afterward, however, about the painful week that has followed Wednesday’s fight.

Much of the conversation focused on race, playing out like a microcosm of conversations happening beyond the schoolhouse walls.

Video of the melee appears to show a number of black, female students. Response online has often taken on a nasty, racial tone, students said Sunday.

“I’ve been hearing it on Facebook, on Twitter…that the black kids need to go,” said Izzy Picone, who is white. “I think that’s horrendous and I don’t think it’s accurate.”

Picone said she’d seen online comments from alum who say “Cheltenham has gone downhill” in recent years, and who attribute that decline to the addition of black students. The suburban school district has become increasingly diverse in recent years and was 65 percent students of color in 2015-16, according to state enrollment data. About 51 percent of students in the school district are black.

Khyle Griffin, a Cheltenham junior who is black, says she’s run across a slew of racist comments spawned by video of the fight.

“There was a lot on twitter,” she said. “I actually got into an argument on twitter with someone basically saying that black kids need to get out and calling them ‘n’ words and saying they’re animals and they’re monkeys.”

Several teenagers at the forum said Cheltenham staff and administration struggle to relate with black students and often treat them with suspicion.

“I think our teachers need to learn a little bit more about race,” said senior Saturn Darang.

In an example reminiscent of conversations surrounding traffic stops, Picone said black Cheltenham students are more likely than white students to be stopped in hallways and asked if they have the proper pass.

“Black boys get asked where they’re going all the time,” said Picone. “Whether it’s justified or not, it happens a lot more often than it would happen to someone like me.”

Other students, however, called out for more and better discipline at the school. They said a small group of repeatedly disruptive students make the school feel less safe, and believe stricter punishments would improve the climate.

“I think that the problem is discipline and lack of communication,” said Melecio.

Perhaps the only thing all students shared was a sense that their school is better than the version portrayed online and in the media this past week.

“I find Cheltenham to be a fantastic school,” said Picone. “We have glaring issues, but I love Cheltenham.”

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