School talk on Rodney King turns ugly Shoving reported at Catonsville High

April 20, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance and Ed Brandt | Frank D. Roylance and Ed Brandt,Staff Writers

An undercurrent of racial friction at Catonsville High School bubbled over yesterday into a shoving and shouting match during an assembly called to discuss Saturday's verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial in Los Angeles.

Baltimore County police said there were no arrests, no injuries and no charges filed in the wake of the disturbance. But Principal Donald I. Mohler said at least 100 of the school's 1,100 students left school after the morning incident or were taken home by their parents.

About a half-dozen police officers remained at the school through the afternoon to assure a peaceful dismissal.

"We felt that students needed an opportunity to talk about the Rodney King verdict," Mr. Mohler said. The discussions began in individual classes, but when some students asked to take their discussions to the auditorium, he allowed several hundred to do so. "I was trying to give the kids an opportunity to talk about their feelings," Mr. Mohler said. "In retrospect, small groups might have been better."

Two men were convicted and two acquitted Saturday of the notorious videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King.

Erik Tumminello, 17, a white 12th-grader, said, "The principal said we should work together and express our feelings. But some of the students shouted at the principal . . . It wouldn't have happened without the assembly. The verdict wasn't a big issue until he [the principal] brought it up."

Superintendent of Schools Stuart Berger expressed confidence in Mr. Mohler. "He made a decision; he took a risk. He thought that's what needed to be done and he did it. There's a lot of underlying racial tension in the county, and we all better come to grips with that," he said.

According to the school board, minorities account for about 20 percent of Catonsville High's enrollment.

At the assembly, students said, the discussion moved from the King trial to issues of racism and respect that have been simmering at the school for some time.

White students cheered the white speakers and black students cheered the black speakers, polarizing the audience. Finally, when a white male student stood up to challenge the black students' statements, a black female student nearby stood up to challenge him.

They began shoving or punching each other, according to some accounts, at which point many others joined in.

"People were fighting each other and didn't know why," said Artesia Brown, a 17-year-old senior.

Glenn Williams, the 16-year-old white student whose comments ignited the incident, said afterward that black students "started talking about slavery and being oppressed. I don't own any slaves. I don't have any whips. When I had my say, they jumped all over me."

He said he was "too busy blocking punches" to hit the black girl, and said he is no racist. "I was sitting with two black friends. My baseball coach is black and he lived with us for awhile," he said.

Lionell Thomas, 18, a black senior, said there were similar troubles during previous assemblies on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

"I knew it wasn't going to work," he said. "These issues are too emotional to be handled that way." He said students generally get along, but "any time you have 9th- and 10th-graders involved you have trouble like this."

By noon, the school seemed relaxed. Black and white students mingled calmly and about a dozen, mostly black, met with reporters to discuss what they described as underlying divisions at the school.

"I don't think it's a case of Rodney King. I think it's a case of racism," said Carla Gunn, 16, an 11th-grader.

Whites and blacks alike rarely interact with each other except at school, students said, and that makes it hard to overcome whatever stereotypes they've learned at home.

The students also complained that they were often the only blacks in their classes for gifted and talented students, and that some Catonsville teachers have low academic expectations of black students, even when they are bright. They said they are often singled out in class discussions and expected to express the "black" position. "I refuse to answer a question for an entire race," said one.

Criticism of staff racism cut both ways. One black student complained that black administrators sometimes protect black students from disciplinary action, on grounds that "blacks have to stick together." He asked that students be treated alike, regardless of race.

Carla complained that black history units are limited to such familiar topics as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and slavery. She and others called for "more positive stuff" about blacks and their accomplishments, more involvement by parents, more unity among minority students and more support from black organizations such as the NAACP.

Mr. Mohler, in his first year as principal at Catonsville, called his students' concerns "legitimate." His faculty has already initiated staff development programs in "multicultural awareness and sensitivity," he said.

Giovanna Bellas, a white, 14-year-old freshman, said yesterday's disturbance took her by surprise and left her worried. "Everybody was friends," she said. "I have black friends, but then this started and it seemed like everybody was splitting apart. I was really upset."

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