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Wallingford-Swarthmore School District leaders appeal for calm about racist letters and photo

Educators and community leaders offered little new information but instead used the forum to call for healing and more skepticism about social media postings.

Tweets showing the alleged racist activity
Tweets showing the alleged racist activityRead moreTwitter

At what was dubbed an “informational meeting” Wednesday night about December’s racial incidents that roiled the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District, educators and community leaders offered little new information but instead used the forum to call for healing and for more skepticism about social media postings.

“Our community has been shaken," district Superintendent Lisa Palmer said of the incidents that prompted a student walkout at Strath Haven High School last month. “Ours is a community that prides itself in being respectful and inclusive. There is a lot of misinformation and half-truths on social media.”

Many of the more than 300 people who crowded into Strath Haven’s auditorium hoping for more specific information about the racist letters that authorities said four girls from the high school left at four Swarthmore homes on Dec. 15, or the connection with a picture of two youths in Ku Klux Klan-style hoods that circulated on social media, left the meeting disappointed.

“I thought of it as very healing, but I thought it left a lot of questions,” said Laurel G. Barnes, a parent of two juniors at Strath Haven. “I think everybody came hoping for more information.”

Attendees weren’t allowed to speak or ask questions at the meeting, but were asked to write down their questions or email them and Palmer promised the district would attempt to answer them later on its website.

“Based on the volatility that exists in our community at this time and the anger I see on social media and emails I did not think there should be an open forum,” the superintendent told the crowd.

Nether Providence Police Chief David Splain told the meeting cursory details of the investigation, although he did reveal that police believe the KKK-style photo was taken on Halloween and not at the time of the letter drop, without elaborating on the significance. He said that the Delaware County District Attorney’s office took over the case on Dec. 20 and assigned 10 detectives to the probe.

“They’ve taken over the case, it’s ongoing and I’ve told you what I can tell you,” Splain said.

The meeting was the first public opportunity for the Delaware County community to discuss the incidents.

The controversy was triggered when four families in Swarthmore received letters on their doorsteps that — at least according to versions later posted on social media — praised President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, and told the recipients to leave the United States, claiming: “There is now a law against filthy nutheads like yourself living in our country.”

The KKK-style photo circulated among Strath Haven students on social media immediately after the Dec. 15 letter drops.

Swarthmore Police Chief Brian Craig has said that four female students from Strath Haven had apologized for the letter to the families who received them.

Earlier on Wednesday, attorney Bryan Lentz, a former state representative, came forward as representing the families of the girls. He said that initial news reports and district statements about the incident had created a number of misconceptions. He said the intent of the letters was not racist and that its recipients were also white. He also said the girls have been receiving threats.

Also on Wednesday, one of the letter recipients, Swarthmore resident Joe Wendel, came forward to say that he and two other families who received the note are white and that he felt the incident had been blown out of proportion.

In announcing Wednesday night’s meeting, schools chief Palmer created some unusual ground rules — barring photography or taping of the meeting and stating that questions from the crowd would not be answered in real time.

In addition to school officials and police, the meeting was attended by state and local leaders of the NAACP who echoed Palmer’s message to keep a healthy skepticism and verify postings on social media before getting worked up about them.

“We want the community to feel the process is playing out in a fair way for all people,” said James Mason of the Media Area NAACP.

Andrew Spengler, 18-year-old senior and student council president at Strath Haven, said the mood in the school has improved since the initial anger that prompted the December walkout.

“After winter break, people are more regulated with their emotions,” Spengler said, “and people are channeling their emotions into positive things.” He added that he believed the letters were “a combination of immaturity, ignorance and not realizing the impact.”

Elizabeth A. Lee-Holmes, who graduated from Strath Haven in 1976, said that “for someone who does not know exactly what happened, you would have liked for them to tell you what happened at the outset” of the meeting.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Wednesday’s meeting had been announced by Superintendent Lisa Palmer “with little advance notice” on Jan. 1. Palmer had notified the community about the meeting in a Dec. 21 email.