Amid a slew of social media posts and rampant rumors about out-of-control fighting and violence in two schools, Coatesville Area School District officials say they are beefing up security, adding private guards, and planning a walk-through with local law enforcement to scope out any trouble spots.
The tighter safety measures come as officials in the Chester County district continue to insist that fighting at the 9/10 Center - the school for high school freshmen and sophomores - is no worse than in previous years. When parents said they had heard rumors of 11 school fights on the Friday before Thanksgiving break, district officials said there were only two.
Cathy Taschner, the Coatesville superintendent, said the new security moves come "not because we thought schools weren't safe, but because we wanted to be responsive to what we heard from parents."
District statistics show that the pace of fighting at the high school has increased. High school fights in Coatesville ranged from 18 to 26 per year the previous four years, according to district statistics, but have already hit 19 this school year.
Neither denials nor the promise of tougher security has done much to quiet the controversy. Parents have packed Coatesville district meetings to register concern about escalating violence. Both the 9/10 center and the 11/12 building, which make up the senior high school, are patrolled by two armed school-district police officers.
The question of school safety is in many ways a textbook case in how the rise of social media has heightened tension, with rumors and angry posts on Facebook or Twitter jarring the nerves of parents and students while raising fears of more violence.
In Coatesville, those jitters spiked after two fights Nov. 20 at the 9/10 Center, followed by rumors of a threat on social media that led police to search the high school with a bomb-detection dog on Nov. 23, Taschner said.
She said criminal charges were filed and students were disciplined, but she gave no details, saying she was too busy to get the information. The Chester County District Attorney's Office could not immediately provide the information.
Michele Heinrichs said the fighting was so bad this fall that her 16-year-old left the 9/10 Center in late October and now gets his schooling from an online cyberschool.
Heinrichs said her son was "texting me on a daily basis - 'I'm scared, there's fighting, millions of times a day.' He said the kids that fight, once they're on the ground, they keep punching, there's blood everywhere, the teachers can't get involved."
Her son said that he saw as many as five to seven fights a day last year and this year. "They would push teachers around, and teachers couldn't do anything because they would get in trouble," he said.
Taschner and other officials maintain the perceptions of nonstop brawling at the schools are worse than the reality.
"We had several incidents that happened in a short period of time," she said, including one fight in a corridor and another in the cafeteria, the Friday before Thanksgiving. "It increased the anxiety of parents and students."
She also said that reports of fighting at South Brandywine Middle School were incorrect and that what she instead called "a texting issue" had spilled over into social media.
Even though Coatesville is already among a small number of Pennsylvania districts with its own school police force, the 7,000-student district will add two unarmed private guards at each high school building next month.
Taschner said her office was also arranging the pending walk-through with local law enforcement "to make sure we have all the appropriate protocols for security in place."
Dean Snyder, president of the Coatesville school board, said: "We believe we have a safe environment for our children right now. There have been exaggerations - social media contributes to that. At the same time, we don't want it to appear the board is suggesting these things are all exaggerations. The board takes it very seriously."