Published January 13, 2015
For years, a clique of high school students in this prosperous and overwhelmingly white borough have worn clothes adorned with Confederate flags and parked their pickups in a section of the school parking lot known as "redneck row."
The display, some parents of minority students say, was just one symptom of festering racism that school officials ignored until animosities boiled over last week.
That's when three white 16-year-old students allegedly yelled racial slurs and threw paper wads at minority students outside the 1,600-student Warwick High School.
School officials vowed to discipline the three students, tighten security and ban Confederate flags on school property. On Wednesday, police charged the three with disorderly conduct.
The "disturbing and repulsive" Oct. 3 confrontation was a "wake-up call" for Warwick High School, said Superintendent John George. "Perhaps we were lulled into a false sense that our school district was immune to racism and bigotry," he said.
Some students suspect the perpetrators were trying to imitate white students in Jena, La., who fanned racial tensions last year by hanging nooses from a tree outside a high school.
Police Chief William Sease said there's no evidence the suspects were influenced by the Jena case.
"What is racial intimidation? It's trying to have power over someone else," Sease said. "I think that's their motivation."
Erasmo Cora Jr., a Puerto Rican native whose 14-year-old son, Erik, was among the victims, said the school should expel all of the roughly dozen students who allegedly engaged in racist behavior.
"I'm not going to put up with it — my kid should have never went through this," Cora said. "Either they all get out, or we're just going to have to make a bigger issue of it."
The confrontation comes as a major disappointment to Cora. He moved his family from nearby Lancaster about a year ago, expecting his son to receive a better education than he could in Lancaster's troubled schools.
Erik Cora, a freshman, said he was hanging out by the flagpole with two boys — one black and one biracial — when the taunting occurred before the start of school. It broke up when the morning bell rang, but it also spawned rumors that some students planned to bring guns to school later in the week and start riots.
At a community meeting Monday, some parents said their earlier complaints about Confederate flag displays and racial slurs fell on deaf ears. Others complained that the district took too long to punish the perpetrators.
The superintendent said the incident was revealed only after a teacher overheard other students discussing it and alerted administrators. Although school officials were previously aware of "redneck row," they couldn't discipline students merely for displaying a Confederate flag, a symbol that has been protected under the First Amendment, he said.
"If there were signs of unrest, they were not evident to us at that point," George said.
The high school is just blocks away from a picturesque downtown, the hub of the borough of about 9,000 residents founded in 1756. Lititz is known for quaint shops, artists and Sturgis Pretzel House, which bills itself as America's first pretzel bakery, and is named after a Bohemian castle.
Taryn Burkman, who attended the high school last year, said she couldn't remember the "redneck row" clique causing any trouble in the past.
"They always had the flags, but they never did anything to the black kids," said Burkman, 17, who is white. "I don't understand why it all happened this year."
Others speculate that the perpetrators felt threatened by a growing but still tiny minority population at the high school. Hispanics account for roughly 3 percent and blacks 2 percent of this year's total enrollment.
"Last year, there was a little bit of racism, but it didn't surface as much because there weren't as many minorities," said Jasmine Whaley, a 15-year-old sophomore who is black. "I never thought I was in danger or anything, but this year it's starting to escalate more, so now I'm starting to get kind of worried."
Since Friday, police have been conducting daily patrols near the school and screening backpacks and book bags for weapons. Erik Cora said he feels the measures are excessive.
"Now kids are trying to feel sorry for me, and I don't want kids to feel sorry for me," he said.