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The N-word, a scuffle, a protest: Racial tensions flare at Washington Township, NJ, school

The NAACP was called in to meet with school officials Wednesday night

Washington Township, NJ, High School was the scene of student protests Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, after racial slurs in a text exchange shared among students put some white and black students at odds and sparked a fracas.
Washington Township, NJ, High School was the scene of student protests Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, after racial slurs in a text exchange shared among students put some white and black students at odds and sparked a fracas.Read moreMelanie Burney / Staff

Two days after some white students at  Washington Township High School exchanged racially charged social-media messages, prompting a confrontation between some white and black students the next day, scores of students staged a peaceful, hours-long sit-in at the school Thursday.

There were black and white students among the 170 or so who skipped classes to cram inside the school lobby in silent rebuke of the racist incident.

Some protesters later said that there had been previous such incidents and that school officials had not adequately addressed their concerns.

"We needed to get their attention," said Kayla Webster, 16, a junior, who helped lead the demonstration.

"We wanted to make a statement that this is not OK. The students want change," said Webster, who is president of the school's African American cultural club.

"It really hurts me to know there are people out there who think it's OK to use racial slurs," said freshman Rachel Melloni, 14, who is white. "This isn't the 1950s."

The demonstration came two days after a group of students shared a conversation via social media Tuesday night that contained racial slurs, said School Superintendent Joseph Bollendorf.  More than a dozen students involved in the racist texting and the scuffle that followed, as well as those who videotaped the fight were suspended, he said in an interview as he stood outside the school auditorium.

"Under no circumstance will hatred, racism, bigotry, or violence be tolerated in any of our schools," Bollendorf also said in a statement.

The social-media exchange was a private text conversation among students that was then shared on Snapchat, Bollendorf said. The message quickly went viral among the school's nearly 2,300 students. The school is 81 percent white, 8 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic.

"It spread like wildfire," Bollendorf said Thursday.

According to a screenshot of the Snapchat post obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News, the N-word was used several times. "ya'll think your cool cause the color of your skins, black, but I think we should bring the kkk back,"  one said. At one point, someone expressed concern about the group "getting into trouble in school [because] there is screenshots of us saying" the N-word.

"Freedom of speech," another student responded.

On Wednesday, most of the students involved in the group message stayed home from school, the superintendent said. Most of them are athletes, including a few football players, he said. The school has its first black football head coach, but Bollendorf said he didn't believe that had played a role in the racist messages.

Lamont Robinson, in his first year as head coach of the football team, said Thursday the team's practice field served as "our sanctuary, our bubble."

He said he had asked his players if there was anything they wanted to say or if there was anything they needed from him.

"I just wanted them to know I care about them and I love them," Robinson said. The incidents of the last few days represented "a big-time teachable moment," he added.

Naszir Johnson, 17, a senior, who is black, said the racist texts had made him angry. "I know who the kids are. I was pretty shocked by it."

Johnson said three white students whose names appeared in the group message were surrounded by angry black students when they came to school Wednesday. The black students, including some football players, confronted the trio of white students demanding, "Say it to my face," he said.

A  fight then broke out before homeroom, and the students involved were separated, principal Ann Moore said in a letter sent to parents Wednesday night. No injuries were reported.

The school opened Thursday with increased police presence, including the police chief. Normally, only two police resource officers are assigned to the sprawling school campus.

Some parents rushed to the school to take their children home after unfounded rumors swirled about violence Thursday.

About midday, a line snaked out the main entrance, as parents waited to sign out their children at the front office.

Carl Rizzo, 40, said his daughters, Gina, 17, and Elizabeth, 15, "just feel unsafe, they want to come home."

Latifah Randolph said she was proud of her son, Nasir, and the other protesters. "They're standing up for their rights."

Classes were held during the demonstration and some protesters said they left the gathering briefly to take tests. The sit-in ended some hours later and dozens of students then went into the auditorium for an assembly led by student leaders to share their concerns.

In his interview, Bollendorf applauded the students' candor as a step in the right direction for the district. A community meeting was scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m.

"It's important to face the challenges head-on," the superintendent said.

Nasir Randolph, 17, a senior, said he hoped that Thursday's demonstration would educate school officials about racism in the school. He and others said the school has a history of racial problems. "Today was just to let people know that racism is here and that we're here to make a change," he said.

Among the demonstrators was Kaleigh Boddy, 16, a junior, who said she was "absolutely disgusted" by the text messages. Boddy, who is white, said she has a younger adopted brother who is black.

Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County chapter of the NAACP, was called in to meet with school officials Wednesday night. The civil rights group is working with the district to develop a plan to address racial concerns and providing sensitivity and cultural training for staff and students, she said.

Students also want more minority teachers and more assemblies led by students to talk about race, Webster  said.

"It has been tolerated for a while now. There are a lot of white people who say the N-word freely in the hallway," said Alexandra Wells, 16, a junior. "Something needs to be done."

Staff writer Phil Anastasia contributed to this article.