Racism that isn't reported State report faults schools

August 23, 1992|By Lan Nguyen and Sherry Joe | Lan Nguyen and Sherry Joe,Staff Writers

The Maryland Commission on Human Relations says Howard County schools have taken a "head in the sand" approach to dealing with racial incidents, and claims some problems have been ignored because principals and teachers are uncomfortable dealing with them.

A 68-page draft report, released Tuesday, follows a four-month study into the schools' handling of racial, religious and ethnic intolerance. The study is the most extensive the commission has made of a school system. It was begun at the request of the county Human Rights Commission after a series of hate-bias incidents on school grounds.

The Maryland commission will discuss possible actions at its Sept. 8 meeting, said Deputy Director Henry Ford.

"The study itself is more or less advisement," he said. "There are things we can do in case [the school system doesn't] take our recommendations. I have to emphasize, to date, it has been more than cooperative with us."

/# Among the report's conclusions:

* Dozens of racial incidents in recent years have gone unreported in the schools, in part because it is assumed that students don't understand their actions and are simply repeating what they learn at home.

Principals and teachers also systematically avoid and inconsistently report incidents because they feel uncomfortable handling them.

Despite a school policy that all incidents be reported to the schools' human relations director, "few if any" have been.

* The school system offers an array of continuing education courses and seminars on multi-culturalism, but few teachers take advantage of them. As a result, some white faculty members don't know how to teach diversity and are uncomfortable discussing it in class.

* Black principals say administrators aim to match them with schools that have the most minority students, effectively limiting their job opportunities to schools in Columbia and Ellicott City. In many cases, minority teachers ask for such assignments, resulting in segregation and more race incidents in south and west county schools. The report, however, commended the schools' record in hiring and promoting minorities.

* The schools' 3-month old "rights" proposal, designed to improve the handling of hate-bias incidents, falls short by giving principals too much discretion in defining such incidents. The report recommends that principals be required to report all questionable incidents and give the schools' Human Relations Specialist the power to decide whether they are hate-motivated.

* The schools suspend a disproportionate number of black male students. The report said the reasons for this are unclear, but noted that explanations given by administrators included racial insensitivity, socio-economic problems and "the belief that black parents may teach their children that it is OK to hit back when someone else hits first."

The report recommends suspending students involved in hate-bias incidents on the first offense, requiring teachers to take classes in how to teach multi-culturalism, and evaluating teachers on their ability to teach it.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey was unavailable for comment

on the report. "It's only a draft and we feel it's premature to comment," said schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan.

School board chairwoman Deborah Kendig said the school system has come up with its own list of recommendations, including mandatory courses in sensitivity training for school board members and administrators. "I think we're ahead of them," Ms. Kendig said. "I think the school system has recognized what the school system needs to do."

If not, the commission has a number of enforcement procedures, ranging from a formal complaint process that includes a hearing before an administrative law judge to subpoena powers and public hearings.

"I don't think Howard County is the worst," said Mr. Ford, who has investigated school systems accused of not hiring or promoting minority teachers. He said he believes most school districts have similar weaknesses.

However, he added, incidents would have continued and increased if the commission had not intervened.

"If we hadn't stepped in, incidents would continue to escalate," Mr. Ford said. "There seemed to be a general escalation of hate crimes in Howard County during the winter of 1991-92.

"This sort of report puts people on notice that we're not going to stand idly by and let things happen. Hopefully this will sensitize people to the problem."

County Human Rights Commission member Roger Jones, who asked the state to initiate the study, said the county must now look to solutions.

"I'm just glad that the issues and concerns I had bore some fruit and that the commission was diligent in their study," Mr. Jones said.

"Now what we have to deal with is, what are we going to do about it?"

Since 1989, at least 16 racial incidents have been documented at schools by police, school officials, parents and the Coalition Opposed to Violence and Extremism.

Several involved assaults. Last winter, a male student on a school bus sprayed disinfectant on a black female from Glenwood Middle School. In January, a parent complained that her young son had been punched and subjected to racial slurs at West Friendship Elementary School.

The incidents also include vandalism involving the painting of slurs and swastikas on school property.

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