Human relations gains indicated Schools track, deal with problems

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

During the past school year in Howard County, official recorded almost 90 incidents of racial conflict and other forms of intolerance in a nine-week period.

That's good news.

Tracking and dealing with those incidents -- not their number -- is evidence that the school system is making progress in how it handles racial incidents, said local and state officials.

A year ago, no one kept track of the number of racial and other hate-related incidents occurring on 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 disturbing 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 issued a blistering report. It concluded that dozens of incidents had gone unreported and that principals and teachers were avoiding reporting incidents they knew about. Although the schools had a system to track the number of racial incidents, less than five were recorded in 1992.

Commission Deputy Director Henry Ford says Howard schools have gone a long way this year -- farther than any other system in the state. In a few weeks, the commission is expected to issue a report lauding the school system for making significant changes and gains.

"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.

"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 brought on board a new human relations coordinator (the other one left as part of an early retirement program), instituted a more stringent reporting system and laid out a blueprint for administrators to follow when hate incidents occur. Administrators and the school board vowed that human relations would be a top priority.

Changed attitude

Students who made racial slurs -- even in jest -- were counseled and their parents called in. Some have been asked to write a letter of apology. Systemwide, there has been in-depth reporting on the number and type of incidents that occurred, as well as the way they were handled.

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

"She's clearly brought to the county an attitude that this is something we can do and an obligation that we should do," said Bonnie Daniel, principal at Wilde Lake High School.

Roger Jones, the former Howard County Human Rights Commission chairman who asked the state commission to investigate, is pleased with the schools' progress, but he remains skeptical.

"I'm very glad to learn that the school system is and has made strides toward equality," he said. "I am skeptical in some areas because I feel 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."

Ms. Gbadebo also retains some skepticism.

"It doesn't seem as if school administrators or teachers or anyone else is being judged by the board or the superintendent or anyone on the way they handle these things," she said. "I'm still concerned about the whole accountability question."

Principals, teachers and others say they've noticed a decided difference in attitude.

"Two years ago I would have been skeptical," said Dean Sheridan, a Glenelg High School teacher. "Now I'm a fundamental believer that we're headed in the right direction. Teachers I come in contact with have a change in attitude. Kids talk about the fact that we are talking about culture and human relations."

The school system more than tripled the human relations budget to $212,000, while cutting in other areas.

Ms. Brown's 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 time incidents were tracked under the new reporting system.

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

Teachers, guidance counselors and principals reacted in the following way: In nearly half the cases, staff had conferences with students; conferences with parents were also held in about half the cases; in 10 percent of the incidents, students had to write letters of apology.

Board members said they were encouraged by the report.

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