By Mari A. Schaefer, Joelle Farrell, and Robert Moran
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writers
A varsity basketball game between two of the region’s best-known suburban high schools took an ugly turn Tuesday night when a handful of students yelled anti-Semitic chants.
The episode during a game between Upper Darby and Lower Merion set off concern among parents, quick action by school officials, and an apology to Lower Merion from Upper Darby’s school superintendent.
The chants came from a few teenagers among several hundred spectators in Upper Darby High’s gym during the last half of the boys’ basketball game.
Two Lower Merion parents in the stands said they had heard spectators chant, “Warm up the ovens.”
A third Lower Merion parent said he had heard similar words chanted for about 20 seconds. All three parents asked not to be identified by name.
“There was a pretty spirited back-and-forth between the two sections,” said Douglas Young, Lower Merion district spokesman. “At one juncture, there were some really offensive things said by what appeared to be a small group of [Upper Darby] students.”
Young, who was not at the game, said he, too, had been told that students chanted, “Warm up the ovens.”
Witnesses said the razzing had been mild and mutual at first – Lower Merion’s supporters chanting, “Merry Christmas,” and Upper Darby’s replying, “Happy Hanukkah.” Another Lower Merion chant: “SAT scores!” followed with rhythmic clapping.
Some Lower Merion fans’ signs read “Lower Merion vs. Upper Dirty,” said Eric Jackson, 17, an Upper Darby senior.
“I got pretty offended when they chanted ‘SAT scores,’ said Jackson, interviewed last night at a home game against Haverford High. But he added, “It didn’t compare with what this side said.”
He said he had heard the “oven” chant and hadn’t joined in. “That’s wrong to say that.”
The two Lower Merion parents who sat near the Upper Darby fans section said they also had heard, “You’re so Jewish, get your yarmulke,” and, “We’ll write you letters when you’re in Auschwitz” – and shouted at the teens to stop.
Yesterday, Lower Merion principal Sean Hughes wrote to parents, notifying them of the “unfortunate” incident.
At Upper Darby, school officials identified the students involved and took “very serious disciplinary actions,” Superintendent Louis F. DeVlieger said. He would not identify the students or say how many were involved.
“Our sincere and deep apology to all those people from Lower Merion who are affected by this,” he said.
DeVlieger was at the game but said he had left before the chanting.
He said Upper Darby school staffers were working with Lower Merion and the Anti-Defamation League to prevent future incidents. Upper Darby High’s principal addressed the student body the next morning, he said.
He said the behavior was atypical in the 12,000-student Upper Darby district, where pupils from 70 countries speak 74 languages.
Young said there had been an “active and passionate” response from parents nearby who tried to halt the chanting. Not everyone in the gym heard what was said, and players were unaware until after the game, Young said.
The letter from Hughes said both schools had been in contact with police and the Anti-Defamation League.
Michael Chitwood, superintendent of Upper Darby police, said DeVlieger had asked him to help make a video aimed at students to address anti-Semitic behavior. He said no criminal charges were contemplated.
Lower Merion won the game, 51-27. The teams are to meet again next month. Hughes’ letter said he expected that game “will be marked by good sportsmanship and respect on both sides.”