Howard Community College and several organizations are making plans for a conflict resolution center, partly in response to a recent string of hate incidents in the county.
The center would train volunteer mediators, establish prejudice-reduction programs for schools and provide resources for the community, according to Jean Toomer, head of Community Building in Howard County (CBHC).
She said her group had been trying for more than two years to launch such a center.
"We're getting a whole lot more support now with everything that's happened," she said. "Now that there's been an increase in hate activity and with the distribution of hate literature in Columbia, it's interested a lot of people, and we're happy of that."
Recent incidents included the Ku Klux Klan's distribution of recruitment literature in Lisbon, a skinhead group's leafletting about 1,500 hate newspapers on Columbia lawns, and the state Commission on Human Relations' investigation of the school system for its handling of racial incidents.
Last week, black and white Glenelg High School teen-agers broke into a fight after exchanging racial slurs. Three students were arrested.
"I think it's a time when [the center's] needed," said Susan Radcliffe, personnel and affirmative action director at the college.
"It appears that there is increasing violence among school children. Either there's more of it or more attention focused on it," she said. "It makes a lot of people think there's got to be an alternative."
The center would be a joint effort among the college, CBHC, the Task Force on Violence Prevention, the Clergy for Social Justice and other organizations, said Radcliffe, who serves as a liaison to CBHC.
"We wanted to establish ways of building community among people and offer alternatives to violence and offer creative ways to resolve conflicts," said Radcliffe.
She said Dwight A. Burrill, the college president, gave the go-ahead Wednesday to map out plans for the center. Toomer's organization meets tomorrow and Tuesday to sketch a proposal to introduce to the college.
Burrill was not available for comment.
Roger Jones, head of the Howard County Human Rights Commission, supports the idea of a conflict resolution center but wonders whether it will duplicate other efforts by village boards, Network of Neighbors and the commission itself. All of the organizations have mechanisms to resolve disputes.
"At some point, you get saturated with so many different groups that they start falling over one another," he said.
"I do support it, but I don't want people to be redirected from the Office of Human Rights and the Human Rights Commission," he said.
"It would provide a service for people who would like to resolve a conflict through mediation as opposed to a legal system," Toomer said. "It removes the big burden from the legal-judicial system."
The college, in conjunction with Toomer's organization, is offering its first classes on conflict resolution and prejudice reduction through the Office of Continuing Education. One-day classes on prejudice reduction are scheduled for May 19 and 30. Courses on conflict resolution are scheduled for the weekend of May 29 and June 24. Students, teachers and workers are invited to attend.
"They will be learning how to explore for the root causes of hostility and help people recognize those," said Radcliffe.
"I think any positive step toward enhancing community relations is beneficial," said Bowyer Freeman, head of the area National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter. "No matter how great or how small a step is, if it's constructive, it's worthwhile. It's another form for individuals to dialogue and share with one another."
NAACP town meeting
The NAACP of Howard County will sponsor a town meeting at 6 tonight so residents may voice concerns about the Rodney King verdict and its aftermath.
"We also want to bring our local concerns to the meeting," said chapter president Bowyer Freeman.
He said several community leaders will speak, including the Rev. John Wright, president of the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP, which is co-sponsoring the meeting.
The meeting will be at the First Baptist Church of Guilford, 7504 Oakland Mills Road in Columbia. The public is invited.