Schmoke sobered by bias talk Poole students blunt with mayor about race relations.

March 14, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

Mayor Kurt Schmoke, seeking straight talk on race relations in Hampden, got an earful from students at Robert Poole Middle School.

"A lot of kids and their parents are for the white race . . . and they don't want any black people around here," said a white girl, one of 18 students in a free-wheeling discussion with the mayor yesterday.

"We're getting worse," said another white girl, asked whether race relations were getting better or worse. "There's a lot of negative people out there who think it's cool to . . . be prejudiced."

Students at the north Baltimore school told of rock-throwing, conflicts involving white supremacist Skinheads and harassment of blacks walking through Hampden.

"I think it all starts with the parents because no child is born racist," said a black youngster. "The parents have to put those ideas in the child's mind."

Students in the group disavowed racist views, several of them stressing that they have friendships that cross racial lines.

But they were divided about the effectiveness of efforts by the city and the school administration to deal with racial problems.

Some whites in the neighborhood "think it's cool to say, 'To hell with you people, we want our racism back,' " said a white girl.

Schmoke was sobered by what he heard.

"Folks, you are really depressing me," he told the group of sixth- to eighth-graders. "This is not what we had hoped to have happen in our schools so many years after our schools had been integrated."

The mayor echoed those comments after the discussion broke up, terming it "profoundly depressing" that more progress has not been made in soothing racial animosities.

"Some of the discussion was like being in a time machine," said Schmoke. "It was as though nothing happened since Brown vs. the Board of Education," the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for school integration nationwide.

He added, "If this is a reflection of what's happening out there in our community, we have a long way to go."

The mayor mentioned no immediate solutions and said he will talk with his staff about ways to tackle racial problems at the school.

But Schmoke was clearly surprised by the breadth of the schism described by students.

Observing the school on the surface, "you would have no idea that underneath . . . there is real hard-core racial animosity," he said.

Schmoke's visit to Poole was motivated by white supremacist Skinhead leaflets that were distributed in the virtually all-white neighborhood earlier this month.

The school, which was integrated in the early 1970s, is 49 percent black and has long been a focal point for racial hostility in Hampden.

Earlier in the school year, staff members traced some tension to a student whose father, Leo Joseph Rossiter, is a white-power advocate and Skinhead ally. The school staff members said Rossiter sometimes visited the school to have lunch with his son and to recruit members for a Skinhead group.

The son has since left the school and is being taught at home. Rossiter withdrew his son from Poole after turning down the school system's offer to transfer the boy to another school, said Mary Silva, Poole's principal.

Meanwhile, administrators have moved in recent months to alleviate tensions at Poole, encouraging teachers to discuss race relations, counseling students and bringing in speakers.

A patrol car from the Northern District stands watch on 36th Street near the school, in case of trouble.

But racial problems remain, according to students and staff members.

One sign: Black students still are strongly urged to catch school buses in front of Poole immediately after dismissal and not linger in the neighborhood.

That policy is for the students' own protection, said Silva. If blacks linger in the neighborhood, "they're going to get into something, they're going to get harassed," she said.

Schmoke agreed -- reluctantly.

"The students understand that it's for their own protection," he -- said. "I wish it wasn't necessary, but it is justified under the circumstances."

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