Coatesville’s Racist Texting Scandal Yields Federal Whistleblower Lawsuit

The local school district's 2013 text messaging disaster comes back to haunt administrators.

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In case you’ve forgotten the text messaging scandal that erupted in the Coatesville School District in 2013, allow us to give you the Cliffs Notes version: Coatesville School District Superintendent Richard Como and Coatesville High School athletic director Jim Donato were forced to resign after they were caught trading inexcusably offensive text messages using their district-supplied cell phones, leading to national headlines like “Pennsylvania School Officials Sent the Most Racist Texts Ever.” (Thanks, Gawker.) And now, two years later, the chickens have come home to roost in the form of a federal whistleblower lawsuit.

Abdallah Hawa and Teresa Powell filed suit against the district in Pennsylvania’s Eastern District Court last week, alleging that members of the school district retaliated against them for their roles in exposing the racist text messages.

Hawa, the director of technology for the district and an employee of nearly 20 years, is the one who found the messages in the first place. In the Spring of 2013, Donato told Hawa that he needed a new cell phone, so Hawa provided him with one. But then later that year, when Hawa went to perform some routine maintenance on the phone prior to reissuing it to a new employee in the district, he found exchanges between Donato and superintendent Como that made his jaw drop. The text messages invoked the n-word incessantly and used phrases like “camel jockey” and “shoe shining coconut Ortega” and other offensive tropes to refer to students and employees in the district, including both Hawa and Powell. All this on their official district cell phones. (If you really want to read more from the transcript, you can do so here.)

Shocked by what he saw, Hawa took the messages to Powell, then the district’s director of middle school education. Powell and Hawa ran the messages up the district flagpole, but instead of firing Como and Donato, the district allowed them to resign, and Como received a severance payment of over $100,000.

Fearing that the district was doing its best to keep the whole mess under wraps — according to the lawsuit, the school’s attorneys were trying to figure out a way to get around various media outlets’ Right-to-Know requests for the text messages — Hawa and Powell met with a reporter from an area newspaper and provided the paper with a transcript of all of the messages. The text messages got out and the story went viral, and about one week later, Hawa and Powell revealed themselves as the whistleblowers at a board meeting.

The lawsuit alleges that the district began retaliating against the pair shortly thereafter, focusing its investigatory resources on them instead of on Como and Donato’s misdeeds and creating a hostile work environment. Hawa and Powell say that administrators instructed staffers to document their every interaction with the whistleblowers and that the district tried every which way to get rid of them. According to the suit, the district hired a forensic technology company to pick apart their email accounts and Powell’s hard drive in an effort to find wrongdoing.

Powell claims that the district refused to give her a four-percent raise in July 2014, a raise she says she was entitled to and one that other employees in the district received, according to the suit. She also says that she was passed over for a promotion and that administrators stripped her of some of her job duties. Hawa alleges similar retaliatory measures. The suit goes on to say that both a Chester County grand jury and an independent investigation concluded that the district had retaliated illegally against Powell and Hawa.

According to Powell, the chaos surrounding the text messages has resulted in her being diagnosed with severe major depressive disorder, mania and post-traumatic stress syndrome, while Hawa says he has been diagnosed with stress and anxiety disorder. They are seeking unspecified damages.

A spokesperson for the district did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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