Leaving It On The Field In Coatesville

Coatesville had problems before a massive scandal involving racism and corruption in its schools. Football was part of that scandal. It will also be part of Coatesville's healing process.
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“All should just have whatever first names they want… then last name is N—-R!, Leroy N—-r, Preacher N—-r, Night train n—-r, clarence n—-r, Latoya n—-r, Thelma n—-r and so on.”

“Great idea! Joe n—-r bill n—-r snake n—-r got a nice ring to it.”

There is no context in which the above is anything but  horrible. But some contexts are worse than others. Those are text messages sent between Richard Como and James Donato, respectively the former Superintendent of Schools and Athletic Director of the Coatesville Area School District, just outside of Philadelphia. The above dialogue is a mere snippet of their conversation, but it’s not at all uncharacteristic. The two repeatedly use slurs to refer to African-Americans and Latinos in their community and in general; they make sexist statements about women dozens and dozens of times.

These texts were discovered when Donato sought to have his school-issued phone replaced by the district’s information technology department. They were brought to the attention of an unnamed senior administrator. The administrator in turn brought the matter to a member of the school board, who also serves as the president of the local NAACP chapter, who brought it to the school board solicitor (munici-speak for attorney) James Ellison. This is where things get hazy.

What is without dispute: Como and Donato both resigned after being confronted by the school board. Their resignations came at the start of the school year, without much -- if any -- notice or explanation given. No one from the school board, comprised of elected members of the community, would discuss why.

A copy of the text message transcripts ended up in the hands of the Daily Local newspaper. They reported on the real reason behind the resignations about one month later.

Everyone in the community was outraged. Many said the board and its attorney committed a cover-up by not revealing the truth immediately. The board said they wanted to prevent any racial tension and noted that the text messages were part of a criminal investigation led by the Chester County District Attorney into possible financial improprieties in the district. That investigation, according to accounts in the local press and from conversations with members of the Coatesville community with knowledge of the situation, is wide-ranging.

One part of the investigation almost certainly involves the Coatesville Area Red Raiders football program. Among the many topics they addressed, Como and Donato -- referring to themselves as “ComoNato” -- brazenly discuss setting up summer football camps in order to take kickbacks from players and students. In a town whose team is a source of great pride, the bigots in charge recognized the football team as an opportunity to get something they wanted, and give the community for which they worked -- a community they plainly disdained -- what they believed it deserved.

***

Sports matter in Coatesville. And Coatesville had enjoyed success in various athletic endeavors -- it has won national-level track competitions and has had several seriously successful baseball campaigns. The Red Raiders are best known for their basketball prowess, though. The school’s most famous alumni is Richard “Rip” Hamilton, who starred there before he put on his creepy facemask and became one of the best shooters of his generation and an NBA champion.

But under Como’s watch, football’s importance in the district grew; some described it as a priority. Coatesville’s football program, according to those who follow Pennsylvania scholastic football closely, was always a “sleeping dragon.” But a new coaching staff and new attitude brought with it new success, both on the field and in the community. The school’s bleachers are packed during home games and large numbers of alumni and district residents sit, anything but quietly, in the visitor’s section on road outings. In 2012, the Red Raiders lost in the finals of the Class AAAA Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association game; it would have been the program’s first state title.

Como’s rise to power in Coatesville came largely due to football. Como grew up in suburban Philadelphia, the son of an athletic director, and played the game himself; according to local press reports, he played football at the College of William and Mary. He was later an assistant coach at Duke University, where his boss was The Ol’ Ball Coach himself, Steve Spurrier.

Como eventually settled back in the area and became the head coach at Coatesville. He soon became a principal in the district before rising to the top post of superintendent in 2005. His predecessor was forced to resign before his contract ended, just one in a long string of administrators in the district to leave due to personal conflicts, gross mismanagement and an inability to curtail vast budget deficits.

Many who interacted with Como have said -- stressed, even -- that he was was a man who enjoyed the power of running a large school district that paid him over $100,000 per year. Como was so comfortable, in fact, that his cell phone’s ring tone was the “Theme From The Godfather.” All those I spoke to were uncomfortable enough putting their name on a criticism of him, even now, to ask for anonymity.

Como’s presence loomed large in the district, but he was an especially inescapable presence with the football team, pacing the sidelines like an assistant coach, or especially active owner. Late in the 2012-13 school year, football parents were informed their children would soon receive rings to commemorate their season. The Red Raiders football team lost in the finals of the Class AAAA Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association game, playing before thousands of their fans hoping to see the school win its first state championship.

“We just thought they were going to be these little tokens,” one football parent told me. “We weren’t expecting what we ended up with.”

Instead, players received dazzling, sparkling rings with a red jewel to match school colors, each nearly big enough to fit around two fingers of an average-sized adult male. Questions about who purchased the rings and how much they cost were directed to Como. When parents asked him about the rings, Como shrugged his shoulders and walked away without an answer.

***

There are few towns where the ComoNato affair wouldn’t qualify as a scandal. But it resonated with unusual impact and volume in Coatesville, a peculiar and particular community that showcases both the possibilities of the American Dream and the full tragic scope of the contemporary American Nightmare.

The Coatesville Area School District is the furthest northwest corner of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, about one hour from the Liberty Bell. Philadelphia-market radio stations come in scratchy west of Coatesville along Route 30, the Lincoln Highway; billboards begin to pop up advertising the attractions of Amish Country. The nearby Thorndale train station is the literal end of the line for one leg of SEPTA, the regional commuter rail system.

The “Area” in Coatesville Area High School represents a handful of small towns with names like East Callowfield that, not so long ago, were farmland. Now, they’re dotted with McMansions and condominiums and strip malls and chain casual restaurants. These are Philadelphia’s outermost exurbs, late-joiners to what became greater Philadelphia. They’re largely, but not solely, white; there is a certain faded and somewhat stilted ‘50s-style niceness to the place. That and quiet cul-de-sacs populated by people who can afford to send their children to an out-of-state college. These towns are not quite as prestigious or posh as most of Chester County, the wealthiest in the state and routinely profiled in Forbes slideshows as one of the richest in the country. They are significantly more posh than Coatesville.

Coatesville is a city of roughly 13,000 that mirrors the Rust Belt more than it does the great push outwards caused by white flight and the automobile and the universal human quest for a heated in-ground pool. The city was at one point a bustling place dominated by the mammoth Lukens steel mill. We know how the stories of such towns go, and Coatesville is living in that endgame. The plant, which at one time employed thousands, still operates, but only 300 or so now draw paychecks from ArcelorMittal, the international conglomerate that now owns and operates it.

Coatesville is demographically diverse -- the city is majority African-American, but more than a quarter of the population is white -- and broadly, universally troubled. Poverty rates are exponentially higher than those elsewhere in Chester County, and Coatesville now more closely resembles the desolation of North Philadelphia than its former self. Lincoln Highway, the town’s main drag, is littered with graffiti and empty storefronts and open liquor stores. Corner kids, clad in uniform-like white T-shirts, stand on dark side streets and push what they push in their form of the service and retail industries. It’s a bleak place. Census Bureau data confirms the impression; over 27% of Coatesville’s population lives beneath the poverty line.

Being so far out on the margin in so many ways means Coatesville only rarely draws even scant references in the Philadelphia media market. The last time anyone outside of Coatesville talked this much about the city came in 2008 and ’09, when the city was suddenly shocked by over 70 arson fires, one of which killed a Holocaust survivor. News reports from then told tales of parents who forced their kids to sleep fully dressed, just in case; everyone knew someone who was “just in case.” Eventually, the fires stopped. Bizarrely, six arrests were made, of six separate arsonists.

The district’s finances are dire. Moody’s downgraded the district’s credit rating three pegs over the summer due to concerns about budget deficits. A person with knowledge of the Pennsylvania municipal financial community said that no one has much faith in any of the numbers the district puts out, making everyone doubt its ability to pay back debt.

Like school systems everywhere in this uneasy New Normal, the school district has faced faculty cuts; many teachers bring in their own supplies. Coatesville residents with the means to do so, here as elsewhere, send their kids to a private or parochial school. Others send their children to one of the charter academies -- the district spends millions each year to pay for kids to go to such schools -- in the area. The rest attend Coatesville’s public schools.

Many outside think the school system is terrible, especially compared to its tony neighbors in West Chester and Downingtown. But beyond No Child Left Behind test scores and free lunch statistics is a more complicated story: a school district populated by the children of charming mom-and-pop stores and soul-sucking large tract housing and dire inner-city blocks alike, which wears its diversity with stubborn pride.

A complex sort of solidarity runs deep in Coatesville, where people who are blessed with good fortune interact daily with those mired in neighborhoods struggling with crime and violence and poverty. In other places in America, this sort of situation has led to racial tension and even, as it has recently and repeatedly in Florida, to tragedy. In Coatesville, it hasn’t.

The first game Coatesville played after the scandal broke was at Bishop Shanaman, a Catholic school in neighboring Downingtown. No sort of division or racial tension could be witnessed in the stands. The color guard and cheerleaders and marching band had African-American and white members alike; the sort of racial self-segregation that can occur in high school cliques was nowhere in evidence in the stands. Both the white and African-American old-timers who played and stayed in Coatesville exchanged warm pleasantries with each other as they arrive before sitting next to their lifelong friends. Every utopian sentimentalism about high school football played out in the bleachers and on the sideline, effortlessly and apparently in earnest.

Three weeks later, the Red Raiders played at West Chester Henderson, one of that community’s three high schools. A “healing ceremony” of sorts was held before the game. Players from both teams stood on the field with each other. An African-American minister from Coatesville spoke about America’s unyielding racial divide and lightly addressed the text messages. It was a nice gesture from a neighboring community, albeit a neighbor that’s generally perceived as looking down on the poor, troubled city next door.

One woman in attendance at the football game between Coatesville and West Chester Henderson was openly rooting for both teams. She sat in the Henderson bleachers, not far from her son in the Henderson marching band, but she was a Coatesville native who had left the town for supposedly greener lawns nearby. She could not help but pull for both sides.

“They made us look like assholes,” the woman said about ComoNato. “Coatesville has such a bad reputation already. We get looked down on by everyone. When I’m cheering for Coatesville, all of these snotty women keep giving me dirty looks.” She nodded across the field, to the away bleachers, packed with people wearing red Coatesville hoodies. “I wish I was over there right now. That’s my home. That will always be my home. People over on that side of the field, they appreciate what they have and what they get. Over here, they just expect things.”

***

The subject of the football rings -- a source with knowledge of the investigation said the district bought 86 rings at $225 each, as well as three pendants for $195 -- came up at a school board meeting in October, amid rumors that the ring company Jostens was still owed money. The school board president said that no taxpayer money would be spent to pay for any portion of the football rings. He suggested the district could hold various fundraisers to pay for those costs. And he also added that the district actually “saved money” because Como negotiated the price per ring down during conversations with Jostens.

The rings -- and even the text messages, in some way -- have become just a sideshow into the Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan’s investigation. DA’s rarely admit investigations have even convened, but Hogan spoke about the investigation and the school board, which allegedly stonewalled him.

“There is an easy way and a hard way for the district to deal with this investigation. The board can cooperate fully, help to discover any crimes and allow the truth to be exposed,” Hogan told the local press. “Or the board can fight the investigation, attempt to cover up any misconduct, and try to hide the truth. At the end of the day, the commonwealth will discover the full truth. The only question is whether they will help or hinder that process.” He also added that, "sometimes the best way to get out of a hole is to put down the shovel and stop digging."

His investigation has also moved beyond a petty football camp kickback scheme. Those with knowledge say it now spans in many different directions. At the center of it, however, is Board Solicitor Ellison, a politically-connected regional player alleged to have overbilled the district for millions.

Amid this swirl of scandal and innuendo, board meetings have become raucous theatrical affairs; multiple armed police officers have stood watch at times.

The first board meeting, held just two days after the Daily Local article was printed, saw an estimated 1,000 people fill the auditorium, with many there to ask why the board chose to let ComoNato step down as opposed to beginning termination proceedings. Many also demanded the board itself step down. The biggest bombshell was dropped by Dr. Teresa Powell, the district’s director of middle schools. Powell stood before the community and the press and announced that she, along with district Director of Technology Abdallah Hawa, were the whistleblowers who discovered the text messages and later went to the press.

One month later, she spilled even more dirt and outlined how the alleged cover-up unfolded. Powell said a member of the school board informed her that despite admitting to having written the text messages, Como was going to stay on as the superintendent of schools. Furthermore, the board was also going to give her a promotion.

Dr. Powell also revealed further horrors not yet disclosed. Powell said Como referred to her as a “silverback n----” in an unpublished text message exchange with then-assistant superintendent of schools Dr. Angelo Romaniello.

This created an uncomfortable professional situation. After Como resigned, Powell was promoted to acting assistant superintendent of schools. Her immediate supervisor was Romaniello, appointed the interim leader of the district.

Powell and Hawa’s attorney also made public allegations that their clients had been harassed at the workplace, with spyware somehow having been installed on their computers after work hours, by parties unknown.

These were far from the only damning conversations that could be heard at Coatesville board meetings. Residents address all sorts of issues. Why are you not following what the DA says? Why did you approve the hiring of Como’s son to run part of the custodial staff at a $90,000 per year salary despite his fairly lengthy arrest record and against the district’s clearly written anti-nepotism policy? Why did you secretly tape me when we were meeting in confidence to discuss funding for the ROTC program? Why is a picture of Como still hanging up in the school’s athletic hall of fame two months after all of this erupted? Why does our acting superintendent of schools have his own attorney next to him? Why does every single one of our right-to-know requests take weeks to process and require close review from Ellison? Are you concerned that Dr. Romaniello said he could not recall when asked if he received a text message of a sexual nature about a female student? Is it really a good idea right now for you to spend millions to purchase a new administrative building?

Board members generally just sit there and stare, typically offering no response beyond the cursory “We’ll look into that and get back to you” or “we need to use this as a teaching tool and to begin the healing process.” One board member, though, did admit she was concerned the acting superintendent could not recall if he received a crude text message about a minor. However, she did “not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Another board member broke protocol by loudly calling someone who criticized him both a punk and a coward.

The district has returned to some form of normalcy, and is currently conducting a nationwide search for a new superintendent. In the meantime, the board appointed another interim superintendent from New Jersey to temporarily oversee district affairs. Board elections have taken place since the scandal emerged, with several new candidates replacing incumbents; there is some cautious hope in the community. Broadly, though, things still look to remain the same in many ways; the school board recently decided to rehire Board Solicitor Ellison, even though DA Hogan has publicly singled him out as a criminal target in his investigation.

***

The Red Raiders started the 2013 season ranked as the top team in greater Philadelphia and one of the best in the entire state. The team was experienced, deep and talented enough to include several potential big-time recruits; Coatesville was favored to make it back to the final game and perhaps win that first state championship.

None of the players had expected championship rings the year before. None of the players interviewed even really wanted them. None of the players wanted to be cast in a real life Friday Night Lights in which they were charged with the task of healing a broken community by winning a game. “All we want to do is play football,” one said. “That’s it.”

And they did. They won their first ten games of the season, before a crush of late-season injuries. Coatesville lost in the first round of the playoffs to nearby North Penn. They did their best given circumstances beyond their control and the long odds those hard realities created, and represented the Coatesville Area School District as well as they could. The district can not necessarily make the same claim.

Top photo via Mercurysportslive.blogspot.com; ring photo by Gregg Gethard.


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