This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Warning: This article contains obscene language.
This story has been updated to clarify that the principals’ statements were letters sent to parents.
Statement from Superintendent William Hite, issued July 1:
The School District of Philadelphia is fully committed to creating welcoming and inclusive environments for every student and staff member, without exception. In addition to our work to advance equity and culturally inclusive learning and work practices, we have a zero tolerance policy for harassment or hate speech of any kind. We will investigate all matters involving racist remarks and other hate speech in accordance with The Code of Student Conduct, the Employee Code of Conduct, and Board Policies 248 and 348, which cover Harassment and Discrimination of Students and Employees respectively. We will also make referrals to law enforcement agencies as warranted. All of us play a role in supporting a positive and supportive culture districtwide. We ask families to please talk with their children about the seriousness and potential consequences of these unacceptable behaviors.”
Dr. Hite also sent a letter to all parents in the District.
A group of freshman and sophomore boys who attend Masterman and Central High Schools are under investigation by the Philadelphia School District and their schools’ administrators after sending a long chain of messages to each other that contained racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ+ slurs.
On Wednesday, an unknown individual leaked screenshots of the private group chat on Instagram. The messages have since met with an avalanche of criticism online from classmates and Masterman and Central alumni.
In the chat, students joked about raping Black women, each other, and their classmates.
“They complain so much I [might] actual[ly] rape one of them to give them something to complain about,” one student said, referring to Black women.
“Dumbass bitch,” another said, referring to his classmate. “Rape D—.”
“K— I want to rape you,” another said, referring to someone else in the chat. “May I rape you K—?”
The students casually tossed out the n-word, the b-word and slurs like “tr**ny” and “f****t.” They named one of their chats “b*****s@f****t.com,” spelling out the words. They criticized women for not being grateful for their rights.
“Wom[e]n think they some sort of gods walking around with scum,” one student said. “Like hello who do you think gave you your rights?”
The School District and representatives from Masterman and Central said an investigation is ongoing into the students’ conduct. The screenshots were reported to the administration on Wednesday.
Central President Timothy McKenna said in a letter to parents that he’s using the school’s harassment policy to guide him through that investigation. The policy says the school prohibits any harassment on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, and sexual orientation, among other categories. It’s unclear whether the messages qualify as harassment because they were sent in a private group chat.
The students who sent the messages have received no punishment, but administrators at Masterman and Central had a meeting on Friday to identify all students involved and to discuss appropriate disciplinary action.
“Students will be held accountable for their posts and videos,” McKenna said. “Ensuring a safe and supportive school for all students and staff has long been a goal at Central High School.”
Jessica Brown, the Masterman principal, also sent a letter to parents Friday afternoon.
“We condemn the use of any harassing language,” Brown said. “We are committed to making our community a safe place for all students.”
Nutsa Abashidze, a sophomore at Central, said that she’s seen the messages circulating on social media. She noted that the fact that her own classmates have used such offensive language against women and students of color makes her “uncomfortable.”
“Obviously, I know misogynistic and racist people exist, but I don’t deal with them often. It’s appalling how uneducated they are about rape and [that they] think it’s funny to joke about it,” Abashidze said. “I think they should face punishment for their actions because they’ve caused other people pain.”
The revelation of these messages comes on the heels of a nationwide, citywide, and District-wide conversation about race and the nation’s legacy of racism. After George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, was killed at the hands of police and protests erupted across the city and country, the conversation made its way into virtual classrooms.
Superintendent William Hite said Thursday that in addition to doing extensive teacher training around implicit bias and race, the District would revise curricula to put more emphasis on imperialism, colonialism, and the history of protest movements.
Some Masterman and Central teachers incorporate anti-racist education into their English and history curricula. At Central, sophomores in African American history class read the book How to Be an Anti-Racist. Teachers at Masterman incorporate lessons about slavery reparations, Afro-Centrism, and other social justice concepts in their classes. In 2017, every high school student at Masterman was required to watch the movie I’m Not Racist… Am I?, which was followed up with a schoolwide discussion about race and racism. At both schools, however, there is considerably less talk about sexism and sexual harassment.
As recent events unfolded, students of color began pouring out their experiences with racism in schools. Over the last several weeks, there have been District-wide calls to disband school police, with students, parents, and teachers saying they “criminalize” students of color. Advocates want the $31 million that is allocated for school security to be invested in more counselors, social workers, and community members trained in de-escalation and restorative justice strategies for dealing with school discipline.
Several of the leaders of the Philadelphia Student Union, which is leading this “police-free schools” effort, are female students from Masterman and Central.
On Thursday, the District’s new safety director, Kevin Bethel, outlined for the Board of Education his plans to “re-imagine,” rather than disband the security force so that its members support rather than criminalize students. Among other changes, they will now be called “school safety officers” and they will have new uniforms with a “softer look” that makes them look less like Philadelphia police. The officers are unarmed, but they carry handcuffs.
Several speakers at the meeting also called on the District to re-evaluate its policy for admission to these and other selective schools, noting that Black students are vastly underrepresented at Central and Masterman compared to their numbers in the District as a whole.
The Instagram page blackatmasterman, where Black students at Masterman recalled racist incidents at the school, has been gaining a lot of traffic. The page has more than 100 posts from students ranging from the class of 1998 to the class of 2026.
“It’s also important for them to be educated,” Abashidze said of the students in the viral group chat. “They might not realize how serious this is and need to actually understand why it’s bad so that they don’t do it again.”
The students in the chat could not be reached for comment.
Neena Hagen, a Notebook intern, attends the University of Pittsburgh and graduated from Masterman in 2017. Follow her on Twitter @neena_hagen.