Howard schools see progress in curbing intolerance

June 13, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Howard County school officials recorded almost 90 incident of racial conflict and other forms of intolerance in a nine-week period during the past school year. That was good news.

Tracking and treating the incidents -- not the number -- is evidence that the school system is making progress in how it handles such incidents, local and state officials say.

A year ago, no one kept track of the number of racial and other hate-related incidents occurring on Howard County school grounds. Students who hollered racial epithets or scrawled them on walls drew little reaction from principals and teachers.

Administrators responded slowly to even the most chafing reports: When a white boy sprayed a 12-year-old black Glenwood Middle School student with disinfectant on a school bus, the girl's mother was told the superintendent wouldn't be able to see her for two weeks.

In response to this and other incidents, the Maryland Commission on Human Relations blistered the county school system, concluding that dozens of incidents had gone unreported and that principals and teachers were avoiding reporting incidents they knew about.

fTC Although the schools had a system to track the number of race incidents, fewer than five were recorded in 1992.

Commission Deputy Director Henry Ford says Howard schools have gone a long way this year -- further than any other school system in the state.

"I think they took a more pro-active stance than what we would have demanded of them," he said.

Evonnie Gbadebo, the mother of the Glenwood student, believes the schools have taken a big step forward, although she still questions whether school administrators and other staff are being held accountable for dealing with problems.

"The school system can no longer say the racial incidents are isolated, or that they're simply not occurring," she said. "The acknowledgment that 'yes, there is a problem,' is the most encouraging thing."

The school system hired a new human relations coordinator, instituted a more stringent reporting system, and laid down a blueprint for administrators to follow when hate incidents occur. Administrators and the school board vowed that human relations would be a priority.

Students who uttered racial slurs -- even in jest -- were counseled and their parents called in. Some were asked to write letters of apology.

The school system more than tripled the human relations budget to $212,000.

Spearheading the program is Jacqueline F. Brown, the new human relations coordinator.

Her recent report to the school board detailed the number and types of incidents that occurred on school grounds from the end of January through March -- the first period for which incidents were tracked under the new reporting system.

More than three-quarters of the incidents involved racial slurs and epithets spoken to other students. The rest involved harassment, racist graffiti and slurs about physical differences and sexual orientation.

Board members found the report encouraging.

Roger Jones, the former Howard County Human Rights Commission chairman who asked for the state commission investigation, is pleased with the schools' progress, but he remains skeptical, saying, "There needs to be an oversight committee or body of citizens who are not elected or paid to ensure that the school system stays on track."

Elementary, middle and high schools have all set up programs to address human relations.

At Elkridge Elementary School, for example, reporting "signal incidents" -- the name given race-related and similar occurrences -- is as mandatory as reporting child abuse cases. The school believes an incident has occurred if an Asian student is teased about having slanted eyes, or an overweight student is called "fatso," for example.

"Long-term changes don't happen overnight," said principal Mary Jane Mitchell.

At Burleigh Manor Middle School, Principal Jim De George invited African- and Asian-American parents to come to forums to discuss the needs of minority students.

Mr. De George said he plans to implement a number of suggestions.

"We still have an awful lot of work to do," he said. "We feel like we're a slow train on the right track."

Other schools have been sponsoring cultural awareness activities and multicultural living skills sessions.

Students say they've found these and related sessions helpful.

"I think they allow students, in a certain way, to express themselves in a manner they wouldn't otherwise be able to," said Glenelg High School junior Brian Meshkin. "There is an increasing amount of respect among people. You're beginning to respect people, to tolerate differences."

Centennial High School student Doug Uhlman sees definite changes.

"There's been more of an awareness," he said. "You find more people talking about it. Teachers and principals are more aware to look for it."

Ms. Brown is encouraged that the lines of communication are opening.

"There wasn't anything going on in terms of communication," she said of her first experiences in the Howard County schools. "What was in place were people in a reactive stance and fears to become aware when anything went wrong."

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