As of Friday in the tiny town of Shenandoah, PA, the police chief is behind bars, and two of his officers have been released to home confinement. The three were charged on Tuesday, December 15, with orchestrating a cover-up as the FBI investigated the fatal beating of 25-year-old Luis Ramirez, a Mexican immigrant, by a group of six white high school football players, in July 2008. A third federal indictment charges two teenage boys with a hate crime in connection with the July 2008 attack. (The two were previously charged in state court with Ramirez’s death, but both were acquitted of more serious charges, and were convicted of simple assault.) In court this week, prosecutors laid out a tale of how justice works in this small town. One police officer investigating the case was dating the mom of one of the accused. Another cop had a son on the same football team. Prosecutors say that the Shenandoah police intimidated witnesses, coached the kids to lie and helped dispose of evidence.
On July 12, Luis was walking across the park on Vine Street in Shenandoah to meet his girlfriend’s sister, when six white teenagers, who all played football at the local high school, approached her. One of the teenagers told the 13-year-old to get her “dirty Mexican boyfriend out of here.” That’s how it started. Within a short time the kids started screaming racial slurs, like “Go back to Mexico.” That’s when the fight began, six to one. An eyewitness recalls seeing three of the teenagers kicking Luis in the head over and over. Luis Ramirez died on July 14.
I visited Shenandoah, PA, a few years ago, to celebrate the 90th birthday of my aunt. It was a festive occasion, the small front room packed with her children, grandchildren, gifts, her grandson recently returned from fighting in Iraq, a giant cake – a joyful family event, bursting with happiness and love. The rest of the town seemed deserted. Shenandoah is an old coal town. In the 1920s it was thriving, with a population of almost 30,000, a bustling mining community prospering because of the discovery of anthracite coal. Nowadays 5,000 people live here and the narrow streets of the town are filled with boarded-up houses, shuttered shops, and empty front porches with broken steps. Aunt Helen raised her three boys here and loved it, but she knows they’ll never come back home to live.
So it’s understandable that there is concern and frustration in this depressed town, with its economic woes. But shouldn’t the school, and the parents, serve as role models to the young people of Shenandoah? It appears that this did not happen. At the first trial, there was testimony about how the teenagers met twice to get their stories straight, on the night of the fight and again the next day. One of the kids said they gathered in a garage with one of the police officers and a number of parents in an effort to protect each other. Another boy testified that one of their chief concerns was that they would not be able to play football anymore. Their goal was to cleanse their account of any references to racial slurs, kicking, and the fact that they’d been drinking. So where did these teenagers learn their morals and ethics? Is Shenandoah Valley Junior/Senior High School to blame? The local police? Their parents? Whatever the answer, education has clearly taken a sad turn of events.
It turns out that administrators from the school attended the first trial to make sure none of the students were there. The superintendent apparently threatened that they would be banned from graduation activities if they were caught anywhere near the courtroom unless they were relatives of the defendants. As a teacher, I find it disturbing that rather than bringing this case out into the open, and using it as a powerful teaching tool, the school administration chose to deny, cover up, and threaten anyone who tried to probe more deeply.
On October 28, President Obama signed into law a federal hate crimes bill, named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming teenager who died after being kidnapped and severely beaten in 1998, and James Byrd Jr., an African-American dragged to death in Texas that same year. But that’s just the beginning. Educators, step up to the plate and start teaching your students tolerance.