Coatesville schools in crisis after racially-charged text messages surface

Staff photo by Vinny Tennis
The Coatesville Area Senior High School. The resignation of two top officials had some residents questioning at a recent meeting if they should have been terminated.
Staff photo by Vinny Tennis The Coatesville Area Senior High School. The resignation of two top officials had some residents questioning at a recent meeting if they should have been terminated.

The following timeline is based off information provided by two sources that wish to remain anonymous, combined with a timeline of information reported by the Daily Local News.

June 4 Racially charged messages exchanged between Como and Donato using district-issued cell phones.

June 7 More messages were exchanged between the pair or administrators.

June 9 Messages were exchanged that seemed to focus on student athletes.

Aug. 15 A member of the districts IT department discovered texts on Donatos phone.

Aug. 16 - Those messages were presented to school board member Dr. Tonya Thames Taylor.

Aug. 17 Taylor met with school district solicitor James Ellison in the high school cafeteria along with the IT employees who discovered the messages and another senior district administrator.

Aug. 19 Ellison and Taylor presented the text messages at a meeting with school board president Neil Campbell and vice president Rick Ritter.

Aug. 19 - Como was confronted by Ritter and Campbell, and the superintendent reportedly broke down and confessed to sending and receiving the text messages.

Aug. 23 The entire school board met and reviewed the transcripts.

Aug. 27 - The school board held a regularly scheduled meeting in the 9/10 Center auditorium. Como was not present at the meeting.

Aug. 28 Como met with the districts senior administrative staff and informed them he was retiring.

Aug. 28 That night, the Daily Local News received various tips regarding Como and Donatos resignations. School district representatives could not be reached at the time to confirm the information.

Aug. 29 Como held a meeting with 25 district teachers to inform them he was leaving due to an exchange of inappropriate text messages.

Aug. 29 The Daily Local News continued to receive tips on the departures of the superintendent and athletic director.

Aug. 29 That night, a letter was posted on the school districts website announcing Comos retirement.

Aug. 30 The Daily Local News published an article on Comos departure and the tips kept pouring into the newsroom.

Sept. 1 An anonymous source provided the Daily Local News with four pages of transcripts showing text message exchanges containing racial slurs and derogatory comments about students. Handwritten notes indicated the names of those sending the messages.

Sept. 2 - Comos retirement took effect and assistant superintendent Angelo Romaniello stepped into the position as acting superintendent.

Sept. 2 - The Daily Local News continued to receive tips regarding reasons behind Comos departure, as well as news that Donato was no longer with the district. Administrators still could not be reached for comment.

Sept. 3 9/10 Center Principal Brian Chenger confirmed Donato was no longer with the district. More tips received through email and phone calls to the Daily Local News. Board members were unable to be reached for comment.

Sept. 4 Daily Local News filed a Right-to-Know Request form to the CASD public records officer to confirm the authenticity of the transcripts. Another Right-to-Know request was sent asking for titles, length of stay, and salaries of particular school district employees.

Sept. 5 Daily Local News filed a third Right-to-Know Request asking for all school district employees names, titles, salaries, and lengths of stay.

Sept. 6 - Daily Local News received more tips and concerns from parents and taxpayers regarding the abrupt departures.

Sept. 8 Article published on taxpayers and parents reaction on the situation.

Sept. 10 School board held its committees meeting. Campbell announced the resignations of Como and Donato, stating there is an ongoing criminal investigation begin performed by the Chester County District Attorneys office and an internal investigation is being performed by the school district. School board and administration members did not make any further comments.

Sept. 11 Daily Local News article appeared in paper on Campbells announcement and the district attorneys office was contacted, but declined to comment on details surrounding an investigation.

Sept. 15 Article on Comos possible contract violation published in paper.

The abrupt departure of the Coatesville Area School District superintendent and another senior administrator came two weeks after numerous exchanges of inappropriate and racially-charged text messages were discovered on their district-issued cell phones, and multiple sources have indicated that school board officials were not only aware of the exchanges, but were prepared to allow the pair to remain in their positions until the conduct prompted a criminal investigation, the Daily Local News has learned.

The Coatesville Area School Board is expected to formally vote to approve the resignations of former Superintendent Richard Como and former Director of Athletics and Activities Jim Donato at Tuesdays public meeting. Como announced his retirement through a letter posted on the districts website on August 29. Reports of Donatos resignation surfaced several days later. Both came unexpectedly during the first week of the school year.

Text messages exchanged from school-issued cell phone numbers between Como and Donato contained repeated use of a commonly known derogatory phrase referring to African American or black individuals. In one instance, the term was used 14 times in one conversation.

LINK: Transcript excerpts (PDF document)


LINK: Employment procedures (PDF document)

The school district has not commented on the resignations, but two sources with knowledge of the situation said the departures were the direct result of discoveries found on Donatos cell phone. More disturbingly, the sources said the school board was made aware of the text messages and was prepared to allow Como and Donato to remain in their positions until the transcripts were leaked to the Chester County District Attorneys Office, prompting a criminal investigation.

On Friday District Attorney Tom Hogan confirmed the existence of a criminal investigation for the first time.

The Coatesville Area School District has stated publicly that the Chester County District Attorneys Office is involved in an investigation related to the district. That statement is correct, Hogan said. As a result of that investigation, the District Attorneys Office became aware of certain telephone text messages between district personnel. At the request of the district attorney, those messages and telephones were turned over to the Chester County Detectives. The District Attorneys Office will not have any further substantive comment on this investigation until the conclusion of the investigation.

School board solicitor James Ellison refused to comment on the text messages, claiming he has never seen them and was unaware of their existence.

Youre asking me to offer comment regarding messages in your possession, which I have never seen. No matter what your sources say I have not seen what you have in your possession, and I cannot offer any comment unless and until I do, Ellison said in an e-mail after being asked to comment.

According to text message transcripts from Donatos cell phone that were obtained by the Daily Local News in West Chester, a sister publication of The Mercury, Como and Donato exchanged the first round of racially-charged text messages on the morning of June 4. The cell phone numbers used to send and receive the text messages in question were confirmed by a copy of Donatos contact list also obtained by the Daily Local News. Multiple other sources have privately confirmed the authenticity of the transcripts.

In an often unintelligible exchange of messages, the pair repeatedly used well-known and offensive racial slurs while discussing students, faculty, and members of the athletics department.

All should just have whatever first names they want...then last name is N----R!, Donato wrote to Como. Leroy N----r, Preacher N----r, Night train n----r, clarence n----r, Latoya n----r, Thelma n----r and so on.

Great idea! Como responded. Joe n----r bill n----r snake n----r got a nice ring to it.

The conversation did not end there, as Como and Donato continued to use the slur as they appeared to discuss students in the school district.

Could have whole homerooms of n----r! Como wrote.

Hahahahaha! Donato responded. Will N----r report to the office, pardon the interruption but will n----r report to nurses office. N----r to lunch now!

On June 7, the pair exchanged another round of text messages discussing the then pending layoffs of district teachers and the recent firings of other black employees.

Man some week for sure but will be topped Tuesday night by Delco vs. Ritter. Campbell fight over Dunn financial claims and sneak attack in wings, Como wrote.

Jesus christ! Cant get much better (worse), Donato replied. Blood in water

Right this could be classic conclusion to board meetings by end of month 23 (teachers) get clipped Tuesday a.m. before committee meeting and prob 6 to 9 more in July if Ritter budget numbers right, Como said.

How many n----rs out of 23? Donato asked. Not enough!

Dont know but think its only 4-5. At most until last minute rush of firing by Goo of Phoenix and Kamara, Como answered.

Good hangings there, Donato wrote. The conversation continued with more obscene language.

At the school boards June 25 meeting, board members approved the suspension or furlough of 14 school district employees based on Sections 1124 and 1125.1 of the Public School Code. The board approved to recall five of the 14 employees at the Aug. 27 meeting.

Board members including acting Superintendent Angelo Romaniello, were contacted Friday for comment. The Daily Local News was able to speak to two board members, but neither were able to go into detail regarding the text messages.

Voicemails were left for other board members, with the exception of Campbell whose voice mailbox was full. Those phone calls were not returned.

I was advised by counsel not to comment, school board member Laurie Knecht said.

I would love to comment, but I am biting my tongue here. We are stuck and I cant say anything until the district attorney gives us permission to talk. Our internal investigation is not within the board. Its concerning other things. The only thing we can say is that he is investigating. As soon as he breaks us loose, we can tell you everything, school board member James Fox said.

On June 9, Como and Donato exchanged another round of messages that seemingly focus around student athletes.

Hell yes he hold own good stock great genes from family and Mac adds killer instinct to fellows total package, Como said. We should talk about this but no share with crooked staff.

He is gonna put 5000 in pocket me thinks today...worth a sit down haha, Donato replied.

Will bring in Alim to speak on Lockup for decisions that affect N----RS, Como answered.

On Aug. 15, a member of the districts IT department discovered the text messages on Donatos phone while copying data to a newly-purchased device. The employee presented the text messages to a school administrator, and the next day they were shown to school board member Dr. Tonya Thames Taylor, according to multiple sources.

Taylor, who is also the president of the Coatesville Area NAACP Unit, met with Ellison on Saturday, Aug. 17. The meeting was held in the high school cafeteria and was also attended by the IT employee who discovered the text messages and another senior district administrator, sources said.

That Monday, Ellison and Taylor met with school board president Neil Campbell and vice president Rick Ritter and presented them with the text messages. According to the sources, Campbell and Ritter met with Como that day, and the superintendent reportedly broke down and confessed to sending and receiving the text messages.

On Aug. 23, the full school board met and reviewed the transcripts, the sources said. Four days later the school board held their regularly scheduled public meeting, but Como was not in attendance.

On Aug. 28 Como met with the districts senior administrative staff and informed them he was retiring. The next day he held a meeting with 25 district teachers and announced he was leaving his position due to an exchange of inappropriate text messages, according to multiple sources.

That night a letter announcing Como has decided to retire and resigned from the district was posted on the school districts website.

The school districts meeting policy clearly states a notice of all meetings, including public board meetings, committee meetings and discussion sessions must be announced to the public in a timely manner. Included in the announcement should be the date, place and time of the meeting.

The board is allowed to hold executive sessions before, after, at the same time or at the end of an open meeting, or at another time. The meeting must be announced. Although it can be vague, a reason must be given in a public setting, for holding executive session.

At that time of executive session, board members are allowed to discuss matters pertaining to employment issues, labor relations, purchase or lease of real estate, consulting with an attorney or other professional advisor regarding potential litigation or identifiable complaints that may lead to litigation, and matters that must be conducted in private to protect a lawful privilege or confidentiality.

There was no public mention of the Aug. 23 or 28 meetings.

Rumors continued to appear to the Daily Local New via phone calls and e-mails, even after Comos resignation was reported on Sept. 3.

Rumors of Donatos departure filled the air. His resignation was confirmed by 9/10 Center Principal Brian Chenger on Sept. 3.

The school board committees meeting was held Sept. 10, packed with parents, teachers and taxpayers demanding more information on the resignations. Campbell read from a preplanned statement, confirming Donato and Comos resignations. He said the board or administration could not comment due to an ongoing criminal investigation by the Chester County District Attorneys Office and an internal, noncriminal investigation being performed by the school district.

No further details were provided regarding the reason behind the internal investigation.

On Sept. 4 and 5 the Daily Local News submitted several Right-to-Know requests in an effort to gather additional information about the resignations. One request asked for a complete list of district-owned cell phones and the names of district employees associated with specific phone numbers. A second request asked for all school district employees names, titles, salaries, and lengths of stay. A third request asked for details regarding specific employees.

Six days later the Daily Local News received three letters signed by Ellison stating the district was conducting a legal review to determine if the requested information was public record.

The board has yet to vote on both Como and Donatos resignations, and the school district has not officially announced a job opening for Como or Donatos positions.

There is no provision in the Public School Code that requires the posting of vacancies, including the position of the superintendent, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education after asked if the state requires school districts to post position openings.

The school district has its own policy in place concerning the employment of a superintendent and assistant superintendent.

According to the policy, the board can appoint a superintendent and assistant superintendent by a majority vote. The board sets the salary and term of office.

The policy also has written guidelines stating that board members should actively seek the best qualified and most capable candidate for the position. Board members would be aided by a committee of board members or professional consultants.

Before the search process, the board must prepare a written job description; specification of qualifications, along with proper state requirements for all applicants; informative materials that describe the school district and its goals; the opportunity for applicants to visit schools; establish a screening process that ensures that board members have the opportunity to interview a sufficient number of finalist candidates; and recruitment and consideration of candidates according to board policy,and state and federal law.

As for the terms of Comos contract, he can resign at any time during his four years, but is required to provide the district with at least 60 days notice prior to the effective date of resignation.

It is unknown if Como submitted his resignation within the specified time.

Como entered into a four-year contract with the school district in 2005, with a starting salary of $155,000. His contract was extended for an additional five years in 2007, and another five in 2012.

Comos increase in yearly salary is based on his performance he could receive a no more than a 3 percent increase for satisfactory performance, or no more than a 6 percent increase if he exceeded the expectations of the districts set goals and objectives. Comos increase in salary had to be approved by the board.

According to school board meeting minutes, Como received a 4.25 percent salary increase, or totaling $184,675 in 2009; and a 4.45 percent increase, totaling $192,897 in 2010. Salaries were not indicated in meeting minutes in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The next school board meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m. in the 9/10 Center auditorium on the high school campus, 1445 E. Lincoln Highway, Coatesville.

Follow Michael N. Price on Twitter @MikePriceWrites and Kristina Scala @Scala_Kris.