When Valerie A. D. Smith decided to go to the school board Thursday to complain that her second-grade son had been called "nigger" by three of his white classmates, her daughter, Shannon, urged her not to.
"I don't want to make trouble for my children," Smith said Friday,after telling the school board that her 7-year-old son, Edward, had heard the racial epithet three times this month at West Friendship Elementary. On one of those occasions, the slur came with a punch in the stomach.
But her daughter's resistance to her coming forward became a motivator for Smith.
Shannon, a sixth-grader at Glenwood Middle, told her mother she gets called names almost on a daily basis but isn't bothered by them.
"That worries me, because I don't want her to accept this," Smith told the school board.
"I wanted to make them aware that other racial incidents are occurring, and the ones that are happening are not isolated," she said Friday.
Since August, a black church in Mount Airy has been defaced with racial epithets, the Ku Klux Klan has handed out hate literature in Lisbon, students on a school bus attacked a black Glenwood Middle School student by spraying herwith disinfectant, and more than 1,500 copies of a white supremacistnewspaper have been distributed on the lawns of Columbia homes.
In one incident, Edward was recovering a pencil from a lost-and-found box when a girl told him, " 'No, you can't have it, you nigger,' " Smith told the board.
In another, a boy on the playground asked Edward why he was black.
Edward replied, " 'Because that's the way Godmade me.' "
Smith said the other boy shot back, " 'I don't like you, you black nigger,' " and proceeded to punch him in the stomach.
Since the incident, parents of the students involved have been contacted by West Friendship assistant principal Steven Meconi, who said they are "willing to do anything to alleviate the problem."
"We want the kids to learn from this, and we want them to become better individuals," Meconi said. "The counselor is going to go in and do some sensitivity training," and teachers, administrators and the school psychologist will plan other activities, he said.
However, Meconi added, "I don't see it as a major problem here at school."
He said he discovered that of the students who used the word "nigger," "none of them really new what the term meant."
"They all had ideas, but none of them accurate," he said, adding that they used the word "in anger, or hurt."
"It must be from TV or media, where these kids get this," he said.
Smith disagrees: "It starts in the home. Everybodyknows that."
James R. McGowan, associate superintendent for instruction and administration, said the name-calling incidents could not be considered in isolation from the county school system.
On average, he estimated, his office hears of four such complaints a year, but not all complaints reach his office, he said.
"It may happen every day," he said, with incidents not reported to school officials.
McGowan said he and other school officials are meeting with Superintendent Michael E. Hickey this week to decide what to do about the problem.
Smith emphasized that she is not trying to single out West Friendship Elementary and is in fact happy with the response she has received from teachers and administrators there.
"I'm getting a lotof support from the blacks in the community," added Smith, who was accompanied at the board meeting by Harts Brown, a parent of students at Glenelg High and Bushy Park Elementary and an active participant in the western county Black Student Achievement Program.
Bowyer G. Freeman, president of the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the incidents illustrate the importance of adding an educational component to the county officeof human rights.
"We have a lot of education to do out here in Howard County as it relates to racial harmony, if you will," he said. "There's a lot of insensitivity that pervades this county."