Milford Superintendent Phyllis Kohel on Sunday personally removed a handful of Spanish-language signs at two elementary school playgrounds that sparked accusations of racism and discrimination over the weekend.
"Regardless of what the signs do or do not say, if there is even a perception that we are discriminating against any group, I felt they needed to come down immediately," Kohel said after she and her husband finished taking down the four signs at Lulu Ross and Mispillion elementary schools. "We have a wide variety of ethnic groups in our schools and discrimination against any group goes against everything the Milford School District stands for."
For the past year, the Spanish language signs at the two elementary schools told readers they needed special permission to use the playground facilities and warned that violations of that requirement could result in police action.
That message directly contradicted the English signs on the very same poles, which told readers they only needed parental or guardian supervision to use the playgrounds, along with a warning to play at your own risk.
The discrepancy between the two versions came to light Saturday when Dan Gaffney, a Milford resident and popular talk radio host at WXDE, posted photographs of the signs to his Facebook page.
Gaffney, who could not be reached for comment Sunday, interpreted the word "permiso" on the signs to mean "permit" and wrote, "Only in Spanish does it say you must have a permit to play or be subject to police action. I think Milford Schools are trying to keep 'certain ethnic' people away. Shame."
Numerous local and national bloggers quickly re-posted Gaffney's photos and his later updates on their websites, which drew hundreds of irate comments from across the country.
"It seems we are not yet past the national embarrassment of 'Whites Only' signs marring the civil landscape in America," blogger Frank Balsinger wrote on the website Scholarsandrouges.com. "If this isn't a clear cut civil rights violation, I don't know what is."
Other commenters said the incident is emblematic of what they claim is pervasive racism in Southern Delaware.
Kohel, who took over as Milford's superintendent in August, said she suspects the signs were simply put up in error.
"Signs with the same message in English and Spanish are posted at the sports fields at the high school complex and the middle school, because you do have to have permission to use those fields," she said. "The playgrounds at Mispillion and Ross are both relatively new and I think someone put the Spanish signs meant for the athletic fields at those locations by mistake."
Kohel said the confusion doesn't appear to have been limited to Spanish language signs, either.
Page 2 of 2 - "We found one today at Banneker Elementary School in English that said the same thing, even though those rules don't apply to any of our playgrounds," she said. "We expect people to use our playgrounds anytime, without any special permission. That's what they're there for."
Still, the superintendent said she understands the concerns that have been raised by the public.
"I completely understand why people were upset about this," she said. "And, unfortunately, perception is reality for a lot of people, which is why I felt that if anyone had any inclination that these signs were put up with the intent to discriminate against Hispanics or any group, something had to be done right away."
Milford school board president Patrick Emory said he was unaware of the issue until the Milford Beacon contacted him on Sunday.
"We will get this corrected so the sign are uniform for everybody, whether they speak English or Spanish," he said. "And I can assure you there was never any intent to segregate anyone, whether Hispanic or whomever, and say one group can use the playgrounds while another group can't. That's just not something this district would ever do."