Correcting Howard's race problem

August 25, 1992

It comes as no surprise that the Maryland Commission on Human Relations has concluded in unflattering ways that the Howard County school system has done a less-than-admirable job of handling racial incidents in its schools. The most damning criticism focuses on school officials' "head-in-the-sand" approach to handling such situations by not reporting them or by not dealing with them in an effective manner after the fact.

Howard public schools have emerged from a particularly bad year as far as hate crimes go, but school officials have taken steps to shore up their own policies. Principals are now required to report to the central office any incidents of intolerance involving students. Also, sensitivity courses have been mandated for all administrators and school board members. And the school system is continuing its efforts to teach about the diversity of cultures that make up this nation and its history.

These are all good strides, but they are not enough. As the commission points out in its report, Howard teachers and principals are often uncomfortable dealing with acts of hate. Even though seminars are available that might help, faculty members often do not take advantage of them.

Something the report does not mention is that principals, even now, may be reluctant to report these situations for fear that their schools will be labeled "the problem."

Until all those deficiencies are addressed by expanding the rules and making sure everyone is clear about what they require, Howard County could be struggling with sporadic and ugly acts of intolerance for some time to come.

Howard County still enjoys a reputation for tolerance. Columbia has played no small role in fostering the idea, with real evidence, that a racially and economically diverse community can work. It would be a shame to have that reputation sullied because an institution critical to any change failed to act appropriately when it was most necessary.

Finally, it should be said that the school system does not bear sole responsibility for how racial incidents are handled. The county's Human Rights Commission should play a role. Unfortunately, recent infighting on the commission over the appointment of a gay member has left that body in disarray. A dysfunctional Human Rights Commission is of little good to the community. County Executive Charles I. Ecker should see this situation for what it is -- an embarrassment that needs to be corrected swiftly.

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