New Hampshire's elite St. Paul's School has seen generations of blue bloods pass through its bucolic campus, but the prep school's pristine image took a hit recently when black students received death threats in their school mailboxes.
The Concord, N.H., boarding school, known for sending graduates to Ivy League universities and boasting alumni like William Randolph Hearst, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., cartoonist Gary Trudeau and actor Judd Nelson, must now meet the challenge of uncovering the source of the threats while quelling concerns about racial strife.
In the last two weeks, all 40 of the school's black students received letters in their school mail reading "Bang, bang, get out of here." The hate mail started arriving in campus mailboxes Feb. 19 and peaked last week, just before students left campus for spring break, according to the Concord Police Department.
The letters were posted in Manchester — about 20 minutes away from St. Paul's campus. Because they were sent through the U.S. Postal Service, the case of "criminal threatening" has now been turned over to the FBI.
"It's not a complete surprise that it would happen at a school like ours," St. Paul Communications Director Michael Matros told ABC News. "We are, despite the perceptions, sort of a real world and one of the most diverse communities in New Hampshire. This kind of diversity provokes this kind of incident and points to the need to have conversations."
Concord police said they have not determined whether the letters were sent from someone on or off campus, or whether an adult or young person is suspected. "We take everything seriously," said Lt. Keith Mitchell.
This is not the first time the 152-year-old school has had a public relations crisis. In 2003, its $525,000-a-year rector (the headmaster) was investigated for using school funds to subsidize his lavish lifestyle, including a $2,000-a-year membership in an exclusive yacht club.
In 2004, 15 girls were expelled for the sexual hazing of younger girls. Police investigated but eventually determined they lacked the evidence to file charges, according to the Boston Globe. Later that year, in an unrelated tragedy, a student drowned in the school pool.
In 2006, when torrential rains flooded the campus and students were evacuated, the school again made headlines.
St. Paul's sits in rural New Hampshire, which has one of the smallest black populations of any state in the United States. Of its 1.3 million residents, only about 1,300 — or barely 1 percent — are African-American, according to 2006 census data.
But St. Paul's has long drawn minority students from across the country, and today about 8 percent of the school's 520 students are African-American, according to the school. An estimated 34 percent are minorities, including blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans.
After the death threats were received, student emotions ran the gamut from "anger to sadness," according to Matros. "There seemed to be a genuine effort among students to comfort one another."
William Matthews Jr., the new rector, who had nothing to do with the earlier financial scandal, called an all-school meeting to explain the incident, and armed police began patrols of the campus. Two students left early, but none withdrew.