A Pledge Of Respect Falls By The Wayside

Schools' Race Incidents Ill-defined, Unreported

April 19, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff writer

Two years ago, Howard County school officials pledged they would nottolerate racial bias, discrimination, insensitivity or disrespect.

Since then, they have tolerated plenty.

Today, racial incidents in the schools are on the rise. And educators have inadvertently created an environment where many incidents are dismissed.

In documents and in interviews with more than 150 students, parents, principals and administrators, as well as community leaders and hate-crime experts, The Howard County Sun found that:

* Administrators do not monitor race incidents, which students say occur routinely in the schools. Only the most overt events are reported. Although The Howard County Sun found 16 incidents documented by police and others since 1989, school officials list only half of those as race-related. And schools Human Relations Director Kathleen Griffin, whose job includes investigating complaints, insisted in a recent interview she had never personally dealt with a race-hate incident in her 17 years on the job.

* Educators have never defined racist conduct. Principals use their discretion, resulting in inconsistency among the schools. When one student calls another a "nigger," it is almost never considered racist behavior, said seven of the eight high school principals.

* Minority students believe they have few options when a racial incident occurs. While students say they experience fewblatant hatred acts, they sense covert racism from many students, parents and even teachers.

* A new policy for dealing with race incidents is in the works. School officials declined to release the working version but say it will provide a clear definition of racism and guidelines for disciplining students.

*

That race problems existhere seems paradoxical. Howard County -- and more specifically, Columbia -- often is cited as an affluent, colorblind community to place a homestead and raise children amid integration and racial harmony.

But last year local police recorded more than 50 hate incidents in the county.

The Ku Klux Klan distributed hate literature in Lisbon. A group of skinheads tossed more than 1,000 copies of a white supremacist newspaper on Columbia lawns, prompting angry residents to calla community forum to discuss racial intolerance. And last month, vandals spray-painted "Chinks" on the street in front of a Korean family's home near Ellicott City.

The number of incidents reported on school grounds has grown steadily since 1989 -- before then, there is no record. In 1990, the police began keeping track of racial incidents.

Two angered parents stepped forward in recent months to tell theschool board of their children's experiences: a black second-grader was punched and called a "nigger" by a classmate at West Friendship Elementary School, and a black eighth-grader on a school bus was sprayed with disinfectant by a white fellow student from Glenwood Middle School.

"The more tragic part is these kids are bringing these racist ideas from home and from their peers," said Roger Jones, chairman of the Howard County Human Rights Commission. "It's seething and it'sgoing to grow."

It's unusual for the school board to hear complaints about race incidents in schools, said board Chairwoman Deborah Kendig.

Principals are not required by law to report racial incidents to police, and it appears that they report only the most blatant ones. Last year, principals told police of six racial incidents: three cases of vandalism, two assaults and one case of harassment.

Since1989, police and other sources have documented 16, including five sofar this year.

Jones said parents reported 15 incidents to him in1991 alone. Not all have been documented.

At its monthly meeting last week, the Maryland Commission on Human Relations said it would continue its three-month investigation of how the county schools handle race incidents. Deputy Director Henry Ford, who heads the task force, said the commission may schedule a public hearing in the fall for residents to voice their concerns.

Neglected policy

The school board's human relations policy was revised in 1990 to include strong language condemning hate acts. But the schools have not followed through.

The policy addressed the growing student minority population,which increased from 17 percent in 1980 to more than 20 percent -- or close to 6,300 students -- in 1990. (Blacks, Asians and American Indians are classified as minorities.)

The policy seemed to propel the school system to the forefront of multicultural awareness. The board pledged that schools "will not tolerate nor condone any act of bias, discrimination, insensitivity or disrespect toward any person."

The 1990 revision included a new directive, calling on principals toreport all insensitive and intolerant incidents -- within 48 hours -- on a written form to their supervisors and to Griffin, the human rights director.

Lack of perseverance derailed the plan.

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