Gigi Peterkin said she had planned to raise her two kids in Haverford Township because "it was a great school district," but by 2017, she felt the climate was so hostile toward her biracial children that the family packed up and moved.
Peterkin said her children were called the N-word, and her son was punished for the same behavior as white kids but they weren't sanctioned.
"You're hitting a kid in a primal place when you're hitting them in their identity," said Peterkin, whose son is now "thriving" as an eighth grader in the Upper Darby School District, more racially diverse than predominantly white Haverford. "There's something to be said for inclusion."
Peterkin's issues with the Haverford School District were highlighted in an April report by the activist group Havertown-Area Community Action Network, or H-CAN, that claimed widespread racism in the Delaware County community and focused on issues within the schools, including bullying and hate crimes, an absence of nonwhite teachers, and lack of diversity in the curriculum.
The Human Relations Commission of Haverford has slated its first-ever public forum — Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at the township's administrative building — to discuss the issue and launch a more productive conversation around race.
"We want to make sure that everybody is being listened to," said Jen Leith, commission chairperson. She said she hoped the forum would help Haverford leaders think better about what she called "ingrained policy and practice" that doesn't promote diversity.
Superintendent Maureen Reusche declined to be interviewed. But spokesperson Anna Deacon said a report from the district's Belonging and Sociocultural Identities in School committee listed several action steps, including cultural sensitivity training for students and staff and diversity hiring.
The allegations of systemic racial discrimination have inflamed the township of 48,000 – which includes middle-class neighborhoods and pockets of affluence, and is overwhelmingly white even as it has grown more diverse in the last decade. The epicenter of controversy is the highly rated 6,000-student school district.
Activists say school leaders have failed to act on key recommendations in the April report, such as hiring a chief diversity officer or involving parents and community members on its inclusion committee.
"I definitely hoped there would be more plans" to implement the recommendations, said Sarah McCafferty, chair of the group's racial justice action group, who helped create the 30-page report with input from community members and the Main Line NAACP. She said racial problems persist in the district, including a black seventh-grade immigrant student who in May was beaten up by another middle-schooler and told to "go back to Africa."
Police Chief John Viola said the student throwing the punches and kicking also hurled racial insults. He was charged with harassment and sent to the township's Youth Aid Panel, a program for first-time offenders.
The school year started with a new, black principal at Chatham Park Elementary, a breakthrough for a district where 98 percent of the teaching staff was white two years ago, according to the state Department of Education.
Like many Philadelphia suburbs, Haverford has been growing more diverse. Census data show the percentage of Caucasians falling from 94 percent in 2000 to 89.8 percent in 2016; its schools are 84.6 percent white.
The H-CAN report chronicled problems in Haverford beyond the schools, citing racial profiling by police – 29 percent of drivers stopped for traffic violations were black – and a series of hate crimes, such as a swastika painted on a train station bench in 2017 and a photo that same year of an immigrant family posted on a community Facebook group indicating they might be child molesters.
The study also documents complaints about treatment of African American students, including one who said he was told by a substitute teacher he'd be called "cave man" because his name sounded like a recent hominid found in Africa. Two biracial students reported teachers and students touched their hair without permission. Students said they were called the N-word or other derogatory names.
"Because these incidents happen in the school setting and involve staff with authority over students, they can be perceived as behavior sanctioned by the school system, creating a system that feels exclusionary and abusive, to the students and the parents," the report said.
Krista Malott, who trains school counselors around diversity issues and helped prepare the report, said Haverford's racial tensions aren't unique, but "that doesn't excuse it."
Diana Robertson, president of the Main Line NAACP, said lack of staff diversity is a problem.
"If you have a diverse staff, you would tend to have a better understanding of what that means," she said, citing the touching of students' hair. "Then you have folks at the table who would immediately say, 'Nah, that's not appropriate.' "
William Wechsler, president of the Haverford Board of Commissioners, conceded that he's heard of kids using the N-word but that he believes any racial episodes are problems with individuals.
"I grew up here — I really don't perceive a big issue, but I'm not a minority," he said. "If you talk to teachers and principals at the school, we don't think we have a problem."
Yvonne Fabella, a parent who helped prepare the report, said Haverford is showing progress – such as the black principal – but that "change is going to be slower than we want."
"Part of the problem is that these are big, systemic problems," Fabella said. "One of the issues is the implicit bias that we all have, including our teachers and administrators, and parents and students. That is not something that we can quickly turn around."