• Goode, Shapiro help students from Cheltenham, Quakertown rap about race

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    Date of publication: April 15, 2018

    By John N. Mitchell
    Tribune Staff Writer

    Cheltenham High School football player William Felix had heard his African-American teammates talk about racism. However, it was something he’d never experienced first hand.

    That all changed last October.

    As Felix sat on a bus with his mostly Black teammates waiting to make the hour-long trip back to Cheltenham from Quakertown Community High School, Felix recounted what he felt as first rocks and then racial slurs rained down on their bus.

    “It was traumatizing,” Felix said. “I got to see what it was like from the perspective of some of my teammates, where I sat on a bus that was pelted by rocks over a racially charged issue. It was eye opening to see what it’s like in other places. Race has never been a big issue anywhere for our team except this one time.”

    An investigation by Quakertown Community School District found that two eighth-grade students were responsible for the Oct. 6 incident, which was covered both locally and nationally. However, Cheltenham students insisted adults had also been involved.

    On Wednesday, Felix was one of about 30 student leaders from the two schools who gathered at the the Cheltenham School District administration building for a community “conversation” focused on social justice equity, reconciliation and healing.

    With the civil rights work of late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the focal point, the students, from multiple racial backgrounds, were joined by Pennsylvania state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the Rev. W. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first African-American mayor. Together, the two asked the students probing questions about race designed to spark conversations that aren’t typically held.

    Goode and Shapiro didn’t focus on what happened last October, when some of the Cheltenham cheerleaders also reported racial insults had been hurled at them. Rather, both referred to the incidents as “teachable moments” to promote uncomfortable conversations that Goode said “we need to be having if we are going to get to a better place.”

    Shapiro spoke of how it is his job to enforce the law for all Pennsylvanians regardless of their differences. But before he finished, Shapiro told students that while the incidents of Oct. 6 represent a “dark moment,” he viewed Wednesday’s gathering as an opportunity to focus on “who we really are, where we’ve been and where we are headed.

    “This is how we break down the barriers that allow for an incident like that to occur, learn from it, cure it, and then ultimately become stronger as a community going forward so we not only don’t have incidents like that again,” Shapiro said.

    Shapiro added that an added benefit of the gathering was for the students to take the lessons they learned back to their parents “so they can be taught as well.”

    The demographics of the two school districts are strikingly dissimilar. Fifty-three percent of the 4,700 students in the Cheltenham district are African-American and 35 percent are white.

    According to Quakertown Superintendent William Harner, a graduate of Cheltenham, just 173 students in the 5,300-student school district are Black.

    Harner, who graduated from Cheltenham High School, acknowledged that Quakertown “has some problems.”

    When Harner was hired a little over four years ago, none of Quakertown’s school administrators were Black. Since then, Harner has hired two African-American principals and one African-American vice principal.

    And a few weeks after the football game, the Quakertown school board unanimously agreed to fund district-wide cultural sensitivity training through the Pearl S. Buck International foundation. Through the foundation’s Welcome Workplace program, the goal is to develop “an intercultural competency assessment and diversity and inclusion training.”

    Headed to Spelman College to study biology in the fall, Cheltenham senior Aminah Johnson felt the session was beneficial. However, she added that more of the students that had been directly involved should have attended.

    “If we don’t have events like this people will kind of stay on opposite sides,” Johnson said. “We’re going to get angry and we’re not going anywhere. Conversations like this are a good place to begin.”

    jmitchell@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5732