Charges of racism draw probe

Federal money at stake for county school system

March 05, 1991|By Dianne Williams Hayes | Dianne Williams Hayes,Staff writer

Complaints about photos of lynchings on school walls, racial brawls, too many blacks in special education and low-level courses and too few in advanced-placement classes have prompted an investigation of county schools by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

The federal probe came at the request of the Anne Arundel Coalition on Tenants, a 10-year-old county group that has been successful in highlighting discrimination by the the Annapolis Housing Authority.

The complaint, filed on behalf of black students, alleges that they receive harsher discipline than white students and are disproportionately placed in unchallenging courses.

In a two-page letter sent to the tenants group, Charles Smailer, area division director, wrote that his department would issue its findings within 120 days.

"We have determined that your complaint is now complete and that we have the authority to investigate these allegations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination in the provision of services on the basis of race, color or national origin in federally-assisted programs and prohibits discrimination in employment in some circumstances.

"Accordingly, we are assigning this complaint for investigation.

Smailer said he could not discuss specifics of the investigation, but if legal violations are found, the Office of Civil Rights will attempt to negotiate a remedy during the 60-day period following the investigation. After that, federal money could be withheld from the school system or the U.S. Justice Department could be called in, the letter said."

Viola Forrester is one member of the tenants group who became alarmed at repeated complaints about inequities in county schools. Parents in the group have said that they are concerned about all county schools, but complaints from students at Glen Burnie. Annapolis and Old Mill high schools are particularly disturbing, they say.

"My understanding from the children I've talked to at Glen Burnie in particular, and at other schools, is that there are a lot of racial conflicts going on - the posting of pictures of lynchings and a lot of problems.

"Anne Arundel County has a serious problem, just as it came to light in Prince George's County as a result of people looking into It. Something needs to be done. It doesn't make sense for this to be happening in this day and age," Forrester said.

School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton said the school system's lawyer, P. Tyson Bennett, is reviewing the case.

It's always been my practice to be as cooperative and helpful as possible," Lorton said yesterday. "The attorney will do what is necessary to get a handle on it.

"Anybody can complain about anything. It may or may not be related to (incidents at) Glen Burnie. Just because there's a complaint doesn't mean there's a problem."

Glen Burnie High became the focus of parents' attention after a Nov. 30 fight in which about 100 students joined what assistant principal Jerry Marks described as racially motivated cafeteria fight. He also said at that time that He also said at that time that he believed much of the problem involved students from the predominantly black Freetown community.

Since then, black students have complained of photos being taped to school walls depicting black lynchings and a feeling of "Not being wanted at the school."

They also have complained about administrators who dismissed the lynching pictures by saying, "we are all a little prejudiced."

Parents such as Carol Gerson say the problems at Glen Burnie and other schools are not just about minority students. Gerson who is white, is the treasure of the tenants group.

"We want to know why minority kids are disproportionately represented in lower tracks," Gerson said, whose daughter is in advanced-placement classes at Annapolis High. "A lot of our members are parents, and it's just natural that it (the discrimination complaint) came about. We would hear that the discipline was different for the same offense for different races.

"We looked around the community to see what are some barriers for self-esteem, and the tracking system seems to be a big one," Gerson said. "My daughter is in a homogenous group in the advanced-placement class. They are not exposed to diversity of thought."

This is not the first time the Anne Arundel County public school system has been the target of a federal discrimination complaint. In the early 1970s, parents filed a complaint alleging that discipline was arbitrarily handed out for black students.

That resulted in the adoption of a countywide code of discipline designed to eliminate principal subjectivity in handing out punishment. And the county already has been criticized in formal reports for discipline and special education records for minorities.

In the 1986 Equity Study prepared under former superintendent Robert C. Rice, a 210-page report found that discipline for black students was disproportionately high. And in special education, black students comprise 21.4 percent of that group even though they make up 14.2 percent of total enrollment.

The 1990 McKenzie Report, prepared by the McKenzie Group, a private educational consulting firm, echoed those findings.

"Among the individual schools," the McKenzie Report states, "The rate of minority participation (in gifted and talented courses) remains consistently lower than their proportion of the individual student population except for Asian students."

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