Attack the Roots or Racism Flowers

June 12, 1994|By ORLIE REID

Last month, there were two glaring occurrences regarding the way the Anne Arundel County Board of Education and its administrative staff sometimes do business. At one of the local high schools, seven African-American males were separated from the school system because of a racial incident that alleged assault by these males.

As is usually the case, the effect of the incident was expeditiously dealt with while the cause was given no significance whatsoever. Information given by the Capital and gained from the investigation by Board of Education staff concluded that the situation was instigated by a white male who used racial slurs against a black male student. For that, he received no consequences and benefited from a pronouncement the principal that no action would be taken against him at this time.

The message is clear, as is the feeling of many African-Americans, that justice is fleeting when there is an assault against us. Retaliations are given much more credence than the initial unprovoked assaults that create the problem. Verbal as they may be, they are also assaults against the dignity of a category of students.

Before I am charged with condoning violence by the seven students, I must state emphatically that I am against violence in any form. We must take a position against it when it rears its head.

However, the specifics of the alleged retaliative assault are less important for this writing than the message that was inherent in the process. There is little consideration for the self-esteem of African-American students when they are assaulted in a way that has historical relevance for most of us. All of us understand the subtle message of self-perceived superiority and a need to control us. Who we have as friends, where we live and whether or not we have job opportunities are some examples where racial interference and attempts at dominance are most visible.

The Board of Education reinforced the perception that racial interference is acceptable when it refused to make a strong rTC statement that racial slurs will not be tolerated, and by not taking action against the student who perpetrated the incident and additionally by not making a strong public statement that racism will not be tolerated. This is as important a statement to make as that sexual inequalities or abuse will not be tolerated. . . .

Before I leave this topic it is important that I make two points.

One, most people who cannot feel the effects of discriminatory behavior cannot at the same time understand responses to it. Perhaps this explains the reasons for misperceptions of our children's behavior and the harsh way they are dealt with when they encounter behavior that challenges their feelings of worth and dignity.

Two, the Board of Education and staff have a responsibility to lead the way in assuring equity and fairness for all students. Even good people who see distressing incidences cannot take the right position if they feel their job would be in jeopardy. The system's overt and subtle rewards must reinforce behaviors in staff that enable the right decisions. Occasionally it may mean taking a position against a staff person who works against the best interests of students.

The second occurrence involved a mother whose child was almost expelled from school for allegedly selling drugs. The mother said that if she had not had the means to hire an attorney for $2,000, her child would have been expelled from the county public school system. Again, the details of the incident are not as important for this writing as the effect on students who may be expelled from the school system because they didn't have resources or the means to hire an advocate.

I personally am aware of similar circumstances for other students where inadequate investigations by board staff resulted in the -- expulsions of students who could have been served better with a different consequence. When a student is not a danger to others, when relevant circumstances are considered, when support systems are available that were not taken into consideration and parents or students know their rights in general and are advised of their right to an advocate specifically, expulsion is unnecessary.

Many of our children cannot afford to miss days in school because they are behind in class work already. Often a detention or brief suspension with an appropriate referral is all that is

necessary. Education is the only hope for them to live productive lives.

Why would a system whose mission is to develop children not put effort in that direction? School administrators justify their behavior by saying there is not enough time to do a thorough investigation. To add insult to injury, they conclude that the system works if the student is not expelled. Interesting. On top of this, the parent never received an apology.

We as parents, relatives, community members, leaders and school officials must begin to scrutinize each of our behaviors to assure that we address the needs of our children. When there are discrepancies, the collective force of all of us must come together in voice and deed to correct the inequity. We must not permit the support for any individual group or organization to outweigh our responsibility to the fair and equitable development of our children.

The ball is always in our court and we must play by rules that are fair and accessible to all.

Orlie W. Reid is a practicing psychotherapist in Annapolis. As a volunteer, he runs a program for black male students at Annapolis High School.

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