TV report misses the real picture at CASH

WPVI went sensationalist, but the facts are more complicated

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogo copyThe video on Channel 6 last night was, if nothing else, attention grabbing, detailing fights at Coatesville Area High School’s 9/10 Center.

Was it good journalism? Well, that probably is a matter of debate. The breathless story led Wednesday night’s WPVI newscast at 6 p.m. and showed a series of smart phone videos of fights at the 9/10 center.

It is a story we’ve been working on for some time, similar issues have been reported at Scott Middle School, not to mention more troubling incidents we’ve heard about at other district schools — but context is clearly part of the problem here. Were those fights from a single day? A week? A month? We don’t know from the TV report. The claims that teachers fear being fired for reporting fights is not credible — as unionized teachers, termination is a long, difficult process and its pretty clear union leadership would stand up for any teacher threatened in such a way and do so publicly.

Nuance, facts and details are often lost on TV talking heads who parachute into a story, lack context and run for the shock value, rather than seek to tell the truth, even if it is complicated and even a little boring. As one student put it, talking to us today, the TV report was unfair, saying that he didn’t see fights in the building and the report left him frustrated and angry at the way his school was portrayed on TV. We didn’t see that side of the story on TV.

That having been said, the response from the Coatesville Area School District, initially to the report and now today is, to be polite, wanting.

An excerpt from the statement sent out to the community today by Superintendent Dr. Cathy Taschner:

“The report was filed in response to videos that were not recent, and to a story that we have addressed numerous times with various newspapers, at School Board meetings, community forums, and in notes,” Taschner wrote. “Contrary to what was reported fights are not daily realities in our buildings. I was saddened that the responses provided to the media were not all shared in the story.

“I want to assure you that our police officers, security guards, administrators are indeed instructed to break up fights, and an employee would never be reprimanded, fired, or have their job impacted in any way if they report a concern about fighting or anything else, for that matter. Similarly, our teachers and staff are supported when they elect to step in to quell a disturbance.

Immediately after this went out, local social media flared Thursday with claims of multiple fights and a lockdown of a district school. District sources initially confirmed to us that at least three incidents had occurred at the 9/10 center Thursday, but no lockdown — and that it appeared a number of parents were at the school to take their children out, concerned about their safety, possibly prompted by the social media storm. The district later said two incidents — and only one a physical altercation — took place this morning.

But is that a factor of the TV report inspiring bad behavior and panic or is it business as usual in the building?

Let us suggest a few facts: teenagers often act like idiots. They get into stupid tussles, fights and disputes, some of which are caught by school officials and some of which are not. This has been the truth for quite a while — but we now see it because virtually every student roaming the halls has a smartphone.

But another fact: CASD is really terrible about dealing with the media (and by extension, the community) — needing multiple calls from WPVI to respond to things is sadly par for the course in our dealings with Taschner and the rest of the district, not to mention the Board of Education’s ongoing refusal to speak to the media.

Is Coatesville alone in that regard? No. Downingtown Area School District is even harder to work with — even on positive stories. However, most of the other school districts in the county are happy to work with us — happy to talk about their schools and students, so the behavior of both districts often leave us puzzled and frustrated.

That lack of public accountability has contributed to an atmosphere of public distrust in Coatesville — so even when district administrators are right or have a point, folks in the community don’t trust or believe them. And as quickly as CASD folks like to point the finger at the media, the blame falls squarely on them — we’ve bent over backwards, been careful and judicious (to the extent of being attacked at times for allegedly protecting the administration) to make sure what we print is fair and accurate.

We’re not in it for a quick buck — we’re not owned by a hedge fund or operated to make quarterly profit numbers. We live here and pay taxes here — our News Editor, Lauren Parker-Gill lives in the district and sends her children to school there, and my wife and I own a commercial property in the district and pay taxes.

So, let’s take it as a given that some level of chaos exists in any high school and district officials stink at communicating what’s really going on — the question becomes “how much” and “how is it being handled?”

Again, a bit of context and perspective is in order. Back in the old days of former Superintendent Richard Como, the theory was “when in doubt, toss ‘em out.” Coatesville expelled a lot of students — typically more than the rest of the county combined. Instead of focusing on keeping kids in school to get with the program, graduate and become useful members of society, they were tossed out the door to become high-round draft picks for local drug operations, which did nothing to help the local crime rate.

Taschner clearly has a different take on the matter — that keeping kids in school is probably better. The question many are asking is whether keeping the kids in school is about producing better citizens or making for better stats and optics for the school district.

We’ve been told a number of troubling tales — some of which we’re in the process of verifying — others of which seem to have little or no basis beyond rumor. When we asked Fonz Newsaun, who leads The Movement — the group that has been vocally critical of Taschner, to cite sources for his many accusations his response was to send us a smiley face emoticon, something not likely to instill our confidence in him as a source. We are also aware of efforts, being pushed by former district administrators to undermine and oust Taschner, as they felt they should have gotten the job when Como was ousted.

Allegations such as these must be carefully and thoroughly vetted and investigated. Being first with a story is never our policy if it means being wrong or sloppy.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons for concern. We’ve been told of a couple of alleged incidents in recent months, if the accounts are true, that represent issues worse than a lack of discipline in the schools, but rather obstruction of justice and neglect if not outright child abuse. We continue to work through various sources, including local law enforcement, to see if the allegations have merit.

As is often the case, the truth is a lot more complicated than two minutes of breathless video, a Facebook post or a tweet. We continue to work to find it and welcome anyone who wishes to come forward tell us — and better yet — show documentation for the issues so many seem to feel are real.

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  1. Shannon Kirk says:

    The problems in Coatesville schools are nothing new when it comes to the students and the physical fights. I graduated from Coatesville in 1996, and it was much worse then! Dr. Taschner’s approach to discipline is on point, and keeping students in school with consequences for various infractions, as opposed to out of school suspension is a more beneficial approavh than that of Mr. Fisher, who tried to put my 17yrar old son out of school for three days for going out to his car for three minutes during the instructional day. She cannot change the fact that many of our students come from harsh home environments and living conditions, and the fact that parents are not doing their part in providing appropriate guidance and discipline got their children. A large portion of our student population is from inner city Coatesville, it’s a tough group of kids to work with! Anyone who knows dr. Taschner knows she IS invested in the community!!! I don’t work for CASD so I cannot speak for the employees, and their experiences, but as a parent of three boys in the district, all at different levels – elementary, middle, and high school, my experience with Taschner has been nothing short of satisfied; my experience with district teachers at all three levels, on the other hand has been nothing short of unsatisfactory-too many teachers (not ALL) are ineffective, burnt out, and Not invested in the students as individuals. There are SOME maxing teachers in the mix as well!!
    Ps – I am an experienced Special Education teacher, and I know a little bit about effective educational practices.

    • Marnie Gibson says:

      Besides living in the district and having 2 kids attend and graduate from CASD, I I taught there for 21 years, and in 1996, it was nothing like it is now! You are very mistaken! Yes there were fights, but there was swift intervention, and firm consequences. Education was not interrupted! Also security officers were trained and expected to intervene. I don’t see the inter-city kids being the issue and kind of take offense to you saying so. There will always be at risk kids but that is a school’s responsibility, to provide a quality and safe education for everyone. That was happening previously, That is not happening now. As for your comments about the teachers, thankfully, your opinion is not the majority of Coatesville parents’ opinion. My children had fabulous teachers who cared and worked hard every day. My son’s and my daughter’s successes are tribute to them!

  2. Tom says:

    While I agree the story missed the real picture in the entire Coatesville School District, it acted as a starting place.

    Having attended the school district myself, going to the schools in the city itself, I came to expect a level of disturbance, even while Como was in charge. Still, the school day would carry on and I never felt unsafe.

    My family also works and has worked in the district for years. As a result many family friends are teachers and staff in the district who confirm exactly what you say shouldn’t happen.

    While the union tries to fight and protect the teachers, the truth is that teachers are being punished in some way for trying to create a better working and educational environment. I also still live in the area and students at the school claim that the violence has gotten worse. It has gotten to the point no one is speaking out, they would rather just leave their job.

    And if you don’t believe that, just know on more than one occasion I have heard the students and staff say that “You know it is bad when you want Rich (Como) back.”

    Do all school districts have issues? Yes. Has Coatesville always had issues? Yes. Is Coatesville worse under Taschner?

  3. Barbara says:

    2nd paragraph, first sentence. Typo 😉 change “no” to “not”

  4. Don Messinger says:

    It is easy to say that teachers and staff need not worry about retribution from the district if they come forward . Truth is, there is a district policy that states that any employee that essentially bad-mouths the district can be fired. I have attempted on several occasions to verify this policy but with no response. I have talked to reps from the NAACP and am in the process of contacting the ACLU as I feel such a policy is a violation of first amendment rights. So if teachers and staff are encouraged to get involved and speak up, why does the district need a gag order which works against Dr. T’s statement?

    • Mike McGann says:

      Again, as I note, in Pennsylvania, it’s pretty hard to fire a teacher. Could they be sent off to a less desirable assignment? Yes, of course, and as the grand jury report suggested, this did happen during the previous administration…as yet, no one has told us this is happening, and as I note, it seems unlikely that the union would just stand by.

      • vested interest says:

        Interesting that a lawsuit was just filed for retaliation and wrongful firing against CASD and Taschner. Apparently it’s not as hard as you claim and those teachers are justified in their fear. Also, you assumed that its former administration that wants Taschner out. How about the many residents, not commercial landowners, that want her and that corrupt school board out? You ignore us in your attempt to take the truth and make it a lie. Taschner, just like you, has no real stake in this community. By the way, are you justifying the issues in Coatesville, by mentioning other places like Downingtown? This is about Coatesville and only Coatesville! Taschner sent out that mass email and basically lied to the entire community in it. Blaming Action News for a fight before school started was reckless and wrong. From elementary to high school, there are fights daily. if the schools are as safe as she claims, why would she be talking to the district attorney? I would like to know your sources that say the issues stated are only rumors. Since you failed to name your sources, how do we know if they are valid? Maybe you have no sources or maybe they are straight from Tachners office.

        • Shana says:

          Everything you say in your comments are true. Numerous daily fights on a daily basis forced me to pull my child from Coatesville schools. I called Taschner 4 times before doing so snd no return call. I went to the papers, they did an article then Taschner lied again telling people I never contacted her. Another reporter tried calling response. The people doing articles should ask how many “Horseplay” incidents there are because this is the new name given to avoid reporting to the state or whoever keeps records. My other child received heavy injuries at Scott Middle School and still has memory issues from a concussion. They called it horseplay again. I tried to file with school police a report telling them I want to press charges…no one knows where the police report went. If you want to keep your children safe, keep them as far away from Coatesville schools as you can. Taschner should be ahamed of herself. This is a disgrace. Have a reporter go undercover as a student..then you will know what our children go through.

        • J Parent Rainbow says:

          Super interested to know about elementary school fights…where?

      • Anonymous says:

        Yes , it might be hard to fire a teacher in the state of Pennsylvania, but in Coatesville they might not come out and fire you, but what is done is they make your life a living hell. Both day in and day out….. Administration is told to bring down the teacher’s evaluation scores. Scores where one year they were outstanding and after they say something their scores suddenly drop. Or their class make up changes. Believe me there are thousands of different ways the Coatesville school district disciplines their staff without being fired. They make it so terrible that you want to leave. So no, no one working for the district is going to be willing to talk.

      • Marnie Gibson says:

        Mike, I assure you that there have been plenty of involuntary transfers under Taschners regime, for reasons of intimidation and often those transferred were hired and/ or associated with the previous administration. Their work performance was not a consideration in the transfer. I am a taxpayer in the CASD , my kids attended and graduated from the district , and I was a teacher there for 21 years. There have just been too many students and present staff who have told me about how bad the school environment is, for me to ignore it, or say it’s exaggerated! Feel free to contact me. But as you understandably can’t reveal names of your sources , You will understand that I can’t either.

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