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Coatesville students walk out in protest over racist pumpkin carvings

The jack-o'-lanterns had a swastika and KKK carved into them.

Students protest outside Coatesville Area High School on Friday.
Students protest outside Coatesville Area High School on Friday.Read moreErin McCarthy / Staff

Hundreds of students at Coatesville Area High School walked out of classes Friday morning after a social media post from schoolmates showed pumpkins carved with a swastika and KKK on them.

The demonstration, which included marching around the school twice, was a display of unity from the student body, a protest of administrative inaction, and a call for change, student leaders said.

"This isn't something that we want to do," said Tyrel Bladen, 17, a senior who helped lead the protest. "It's something we have to do."

The walkout began around 7:30 a.m. and demonstrations lasted through the end of the school day, around 2 p.m.

School officials, prepared for the protest, monitored the students outside. Police also were present at the school, but that appeared to be only a precaution.

School principals Michele Snyder and Brian Chenger sent a letter to parents Thursday in anticipation of Friday morning's "Unity Event," which was sanctioned by and organized with administrators.

"We are very proud of our students who stand in unity against hatred,"  the letter said. "We continue to insist that these events will not define us, and we will rise above them."

Students said they saw the school-sanctioned event as an attempt to exert control over a student-driven movement, which helped lead to the decision to continue the morning protest through the rest of the day.

The protest came a day after scores of students at Gloucester County's Washington Township High School staged a sit-in after some white students exchanged racially charged social-media messages, leading to a confrontation between some white and black students.

READ MORE: School racial incidents in Coatesville, Washington Twp. and Quakertown: A recap

Coatesville has had problems in the past. In 2013, the former superintendent and athletic director resigned after school officials discovered that they had exchanged racist text messages. Earlier this month, a black baby doll was found hanging in a Coatesville High School locker with a tie around its neck.

Then, the photo was posted, with white students holding the pumpkins carved with racist symbols.

"How are we supposed to come to this high school, knowing there are these prejudices?" Bladen said.

The Chester County school is majority-minority: 47 percent white, 31 percent black, 18 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, and 3 percent multiracial.

"White people are just as offended as black people," said Sonny Myers, 48, pointing to the multiracial, multi-ethnic throng of students around him.

Myers, a 1987 alumnus of the school and parent of a current student, said things today are worse than they had been then: "It's like we've devolved to the '60s."

Parents — many of them alumni — also showed up to the school Friday in support of the students, bringing food and water and helping keep the space clean.

The Coatesville Area School District has said it appears the photo of the pumpkins carved with racist symbols was taken off school grounds, after school hours, and involved both current and former students. Superintendent Cathy Taschner said the district will "exercise its full authority" to send a message that the picture and carvings are not acceptable.

Caln Township police are also investigating, but it is not clear what crime could come into play.

Some students told Taschner the doll incident was a foolish prank.

Classmates said it was unacceptable either way.

"Anything offensive should not be done," said senior Gloria Phillips, 17.

Another student said he had spoken with one of the students involved in the pumpkins photo, who expressed regret and said he would apologize and beg forgiveness from classmates. Asked what the response would be, Phillips paused before saying, "That's hard."

Students expressed anger and hurt at knowing their classmates — people they see in classrooms, hallways, sports fields — had been behind racist actions.

In interviews, students asked similar questions: How do they see me? What do they think of me?

"I'm scared to walk around in the hallways, because it's like, people really think like that," said Tajanae Primous, 17, a senior.

Jared Elters, 17, the senior class president and organizer of Friday's protest, said he was disappointed the administration was "not listening to the voice of the students." On Tuesday, he told gathered students, everyone should show up at the school board meeting.

Students must be heard, he said, and institutional change must happen, including the creation of fair policies for responding to issues of race.

Friday's demonstration was also a display of unity, a show of hope, students said. Energized classmates discussed racism, sexism, and school policies.

"A lot of people were scared, a lot of people lost hope," said Catalina Cruz, 16, a junior. "And today gave people hope."