March 7, 2008 -- 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.
Several Recent Incidents
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.
"It is an outrage," said Matthews in a letter to parents, "and while only some were threatened directly, we all have been wounded by this. I shared with our children this evening that, unfortunately, there is hatred in our world. Some of that hatred arrived on our doorstep today."
Jack Levin, who has written four books on hate crimes and teaches the sociology of violence at Northeastern University in Boston, speculates that the incident was most likely "an inside job." A precipitating event, like the rising number of minority students or the recent hiring of additional black faculty, could have triggered the threatening letters, he said.
Though Levin does not rule out an outsider in the crime or even a black student seeking attention, his said most likely the incident is "a campus version of the defended neighborhood."
"If there are a growing number of [black] students on campus, it creates a critical mass and looks threatening," he said. "This is always where hate crimes come."
"It's easy to be tolerant when everyone is a racial rubber stamp," he said, noting St. Paul's stellar diversity efforts. "We are tested when we diverse and some people flunk the test."
Students Told to Refuse Comment
Current students told ABCNEWS.com they were told by the school not to comment on the case, but Charles Walker, an African-American who graduated in 1990, said, "I would guess the community is reeling."
"It's a reminder that there is a lot of racial unrest in this country and people with a lot of hate," Walker told ABCNEWS.com. "Whoever did this figured out exactly who these black kids were, and that is scary. These kids probably didn't even feel safe going to the bus stop to get home."
Now a Yale University surgeon, Walker said St. Paul's had been a "second home" to him. His father was the first African-American teacher at the school in the 1960s, and a scholarship in his name is offered each year to minority students.
"This is really heartbreaking," he said. "For those kids to come to St. Paul's is such a big step — to go somewhere completely different and maintain their grades and feel all the other pressures kids in boarding school feel and to be so far from home."
Many of St. Paul's black students come from urban areas like New York and Chicago, and find even the rural environment in New Hampshire "scary," according to Walker. "For a lot of my friends, it was socially isolating, but they didn't feel racially threatened or not welcome at the school."
'Racism Alive and Well'
Racial incidents at New England schools are not unprecedented.
Just last year there were two other incidents at nearby Phillips Exeter Academy. According to the student newspaper, The Phillipian, a racial epithet was discovered on the door of an African-American girl's dorm room. The following day, someone had engraved a "harsh expletive" onto the door of a white girl's room.
The Seacoast Chapter of the NAACP is looking into another recent racial incident at the private New England College. The organization has also worked closely with the University of New Hampshire to foster racial harmony.
"Unfortunately, racism is alive and well, and we see signs of this everywhere," said NAACP First President Nina Jordan. "I am not saying we have to be militant, but we have to be vigilant and approach these incidents with education and correcting ignorance."
In a sparsely populated state like New Hampshire, victims of hate crimes often isolate themselves rather than seek redress, she said. "They are so frightened they don't go out of their house and it disturbs their whole life."
Boarding Schools More Diverse
Neither St. Paul's nor the other schools contacted the NAACP for support in dealing with the cases, but Jordan acknowledged that the relative diversity at New Hampshire's boarding schools compared to its public schools could theoretically foster more welcoming environments.
"You may find in a public school with a population of 300 only one or two black children," she said. "The schools with no [racial] incidents are those that welcome and celebrate diversity."
Like other East Coast boarding schools, St. Paul's has undergone a transformation since its founding in 1856. The first black student was admitted in 1964, and the school has steadily diversified its student body.
With an endowment of $440 million, St. Paul's now offers full scholarships to qualified students whose parents earn as much as $80,000 year. A $5.6 million financial aid budget ensures 40 percent of all students are on financial aid.
Tuition, which includes room and board, approaches $40,000 a year.
Recently, the school trumpeted its new initiative to hire nine new faculty of color and a new director of multicultural education. Matthews told the Concord Insider that the school's strategic plan puts "diversity forward as one of our highest priorities."
Jason DeGiovanni, who graduated from St. Paul's last year and is now a freshman at Amherst College, said he thought of St. Paul's as an accepting community. He grew up in an African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was "in the minority."
"The day it happened everyone was [instant messaging] each other," DeGiovanni said. "I was shocked to hear about it because our school is the most diverse of all the prep schools and that was one of the reasons I wanted to go there."
"Probably someone got a hold of one of our facebooks, which are accessed online," he said. "Having gone there for three years, it was a very close community. I don't see it as conceivably possible that the school would let this happen. I would be willing to bet my life on that."
Nick DeWilde, who graduated in 2006 and is now a sophomore at Stanford University, said the school had a strong support system for minorities. He weathered the scandals at the school and said some past behaviors "reflect badly" on St. Paul's, but he believes "this is one incident" where the school is not to blame.
As police prepare to interrogate more students, faculty and victims when they return from a three-week break, Rector Matthews said, " I am confident that this experience will ultimately bring us closer together and make us an even stronger community."