A Healthy Change On 'Incidents'


June 06, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

Like most professions that are specialized, education constantly uses strange and bureaucratic words to describe the simplest things.

For the outsider, this "language" can be confusing and frustrating. In most cases, for example, a word such as "create" is always better than "formulate" or "institute," but the professional educator typically opts for the latter.

Once and a while, however, a technical phrase comes along that does seem appropriate. Case in point is the phrase "signal incidents," which is currently in the vernacular of the Howard County public school system. It sounds benign -- which is the point -- but it stands for situations involving racial or sexual harassment.

As a writer, I would normally bristle at such a phrase. Why not just call it what it is?

But I feel comfortable with the words "signal incidents" because of the philosophy behind them. The idea is that something has happened that needs a response. The response, in fact, becomes more important than the incident itself.

Officials recently released the first of quarterly reports on signal incidents in county schools. The results should give everyone concerned about the problem of harassment a great deal of comfort. In Howard County, this represents an almost revolutionary step in coming to grips with an important and sensitive problem.

This is a far cry from a year ago, when Kathleen Griffin, then the system's human relations director, responded to a reporter's question by saying she was unaware of any racial incidents in the county's schools in all the years she had held her position.

She subsequently retired, and a report compiled by the Maryland Commission on Human Relations concluded that the school board had a "head-in-the-sand approach" when it came to the issue of harassment.

Well, it appears the school system has learned its lesson and has begun pulling its head out of the hole.

The new report, which was authored by the new coordinator of human relations, Jacqueline Brown, is a frank compilation of the number of signal incidents that have occurred since January and how they were dealt with.

The total number is a somewhat shocking 89 incidents. The greatest number -- 40 -- occurred in county high schools. Elementary schools followed with 36 incidents. Middle schools reported 13 occurances.

At all levels, racial and ethnic slurs were the most common infraction. Other major offenses included racially motivated arguments, fights, racist graffiti and gender slurs.

That's the bad news.

The good news in the report is the list of ways in which each incident was handled. In most cases, the response involved some form of counseling. Suspensions and parent conferences were considerably less frequent.

Some may have hoped for a harsher approach, but I agree with Mrs. Brown when she says that a signal incident represents a "teachable moment."

Punishment without education is meaningless. Students, especially the youngest ones, have to know not only that they were wrong but why they were wrong.

Mrs. Brown's approach has been to emphasize education over punishment.

The results are clear. Whereas a year ago school officials had no record even of the incidents of harassment, now they readily admit that such things occur -- even in Howard County schools.

Punishment is de-emphasized in other ways, also. The report never mentions a specific school, unless it is to praise a particular staff for some inventive way of addressing the problem. The report is upbeat in spite of the deplorable number of incidents that occurred.

A large measure of the credit must go to Mrs. Brown, who has wowed school officials and redefined the way harassment is handled.

Before Mrs. Brown joined the staff, "people just weren't comfortable with this subject," said Patty Caplan, a spokeswoman for the school system. "They just didn't know how to deal with it.

"Now, they're seeing it in a different light," she continued. "In the past, I think the fear was that the emphasis would be on punitive actions rather than education."

Future reports will show the success of Mrs. Brown's approach.

If the number of incidents declines, she deserves a medal.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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