Why Can't We Give Wilde Lake A Rest?

COMMENT

January 09, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

The only question left is how many more victims there will be before people have satisfied their lust to batter Columbia's Wilde Lake High School.

First, the school had its image badly tarnished by a group of clawing parents from the Centennial High School district, who chose to fight a redistricting plan by denigrating Wilde Lake, the school to which their children would have been transferred.

Now, the battle has been joined inside the school, with a white vice principal squaring off against black parents over the issue of student discipline.

Add to that the fact that Wilde Lake has the unfair burden of trying to educate the most diverse population of students found in any county high school, including the greatest number of students with special needs -- that means students of all races, many of whom are economically deprived and some of whom do not even speak the language.

I myself feel culpable in the trashing of this school. Just by writing about Wilde Lake in any fashion, I may have inadvertently emboldened some to come forward with views that tip the scale of propriety.

The whole, awful mess has caused me to contemplate throwing up my hands in frustration. The only thing that prompts me to revisit the topic is the idea that a dialogue can still be salvaged from this carnage, no matter how idealistic and naive that may seem.

My overriding concern has its roots in an op-ed piece that appeared in this space last November, authored by Wilde Lake Vice Principal Stephen Wallis.

In an essay on ways to combat the problem of unruly students, Mr. Wallis linked the problem of student discipline to the presence of African-American students and the pitfalls of allowing a double standard to exist, presumably one that favors blacks. It was difficult to tell from Mr. Wallis' commentary whether he was referring to a problem that is in danger of developing or one that currently exists. And while he assumed that his suggestions have national significance, it was hidden from no one -- including the Wilde Lake teachers who rallied to his defense -- to which school he was referring.

Equally clear to me at the time was that Mr. Wallis had set a time bomb.

The explosion came a week ago with the publication of a letter, also in this space, from Nat Alston, who chairs the parent advisory committee of the Black Student Achievement Program (BSAP) for Wilde Lake High.

Mr. Alston's well-reasoned reply agreed with Mr. Wallis on some points, but objected to the vice principal's other stands, particularly the notion that a tendency by blacks to "cry racism" should be ignored.

In the past, I have cautioned the African-American leadership in this county to avoid a knee-jerk response that labels far too many things racist. I have even warned against assumptions that would apply a double standard to discipline or blame teachers when a student misbehaves.

But I have never suggested that racism has ceased to exist in this country or that evidence of it should be ignored. This plague affects us all and leaves no one group in the superior position of deciding when a racist act has or has not occurred. It is a tricky distinction, and I do not profess to have some magic formula that will move us toward a better society.

But I do know that in the current situation, with factions screaming across the fence, there are no winners. And if no one wins, clearly there is nothing to be lost from productive dialogue.

Mr. Wallis needs to understand that some of his more extreme proposals are unrealistic, including the idea that parents of unruly students pay staff members for the extra time they spend on their children, or that schools establish boot camps for the unreformed.

That last proposal has its roots in the penal system, and its link to incarceration has the tone of bondage that causes many African-Americans understandably to bristle. Also, let's not ignore the message that such a proposal sends: Are things so out of control that we must turn our schools into jails?

As for forcing parents to pay staff to deal with problem children, it is not only not feasible, it is laughable. As Mr. Alston rightly states, we do not ask parents of gifted and talented students to pay staff for the extra time spent on their children.

And yet Mr. Wallis is right when he points out that many parents -- black and white -- have abdicated their responsibility to their children. There should be steps taken to demand greater parent participation.

But if a parent comes forward and earnestly questions whether race was a factor in their child's discipline, it should no more be ignored than when an affluent, white parent insists that his or her child not be ostracized because he is bright -- or in the vernacular, a nerd.

Parents must always be reassured that their child is being treated fairly and that a double standard -- which can swing both ways -- is not being applied. Ignoring a parent's concern or taking a defensive posture is just as unhealthy as screaming racism at the drop of a hat.

Soon, the current Wilde Lake High will close and be torn down, and a new school is to be built. I hope that what rises in its place will be a phoenix and not the same old coop inhabited by disagreeable, clucking birds. The consequence of the latter will only make victims of the children.

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

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