Blacks contend schools still discipline unfairly

June 19, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

For decades, black parents in Anne Arundel County have complained their children were being more harshly disciplined than white students. Study after study has called into question how cases involving minority students were handled.

Even though the school system signed an agreement with the federal Office for Civil Rights six months ago to keep race out of disciplinary proceedings, parents say little has changed.

"Disciplinary action toward black students in these schools is very harsh," said VaLinda Jones, whose son was among seven black students suspended from Severna Park High School in March for fighting.

"The administration says there's not a problem, but there is," she said. "Things need to be changed. We, the parents, are willing to give our time and efforts and go to any meeting they want to help change them."

Last week, Mrs. Jones and Margie Washington, whose son was suspended even though she says he was a witness to the fight and not a combatant, took their complaints to the school board and Superintendent Carol S. Parham.

The women said they believed that the disciplining of students caught fighting at the school in March had racial overtones because none of the white students involved was disciplined while seven black students were punished.

Of the seven students who were disciplined, three were suspended and four were expelled. The three who were suspended and one of the four expelled were readmitted to school quickly. The other three who were expelled had not returned to school by the last day of class Friday.

On Friday, Dr. Oliver Wittig, Severna Park principal, defended the punishments and pointed out that principals do not make decisions about expulsions alone. In the March incident, Dr. Wittig said, he and three central office administrators, including an associate superintendent, discussed appropriate

punishments for the students. He declined to discuss the races of the students who were punished.

"I still rest by those decisions," he said. "It's not an issue of race, in my mind."

Dr. Wittig said that, because he was bound by rules of confidentiality, he could not discuss all aspects of the case with parents. That, he said, might have "contributed to a perception" that race was a factor.

Sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said part of the problem in determining who would be disciplined was that an alleged racial remark that apparently touched off the fighting was made in a telephone conversation outside the school.

School administrators have no right to discipline students for incidents that occur off school property, according to officials.

But Dr. Parham didn't try to defend the actions of school administrators Wednesday night.

"You have a right to be indignant. I'm not going to sit up here and make excuses," Dr. Parham told the women from Severna Park. "We have a lot of work to do. Human relations are an issue with this school system. It's difficult to deal with the issues of race, gender and religious beliefs."

In a telephone interview Friday, though, she warned that change will take time.

"Many of our problems did not start yesterday, or last year," Dr. Parham said. "I'm not blind to them, and I'm digging in my heels to make change. I make no promises that I can change the system, but I plan to try."

Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman and Ward 4 Democrat known for his civil rights activism, said it is obvious the school system has much work to do and Dr. Parham is a good leader to make the changes.

"Unfortunately, the first parts of the OCR agreement don't take effect until July, and this Severna Park case fell through the crack," he said.

Complaints of racial problems with school discipline first surfaced in 1973 when a group of parents filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, then operating under the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

In 1977, after a four-year investigation, OCR ruled that black students were being discriminated against in disciplinary procedures.

Shortly after the OCR ruling, a committee headed by the Rev. Robert M. Powell, rector of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, developed a code of discipline designed to eliminate bias from the disciplinary process.

In 1991, the Anne Arundel Coalition of Tenants filed a complaint with the civil rights office, which now operates as part of the U.S. Department of Education. That complaint involved photographs of black lynching victims that were hung in the halls of Glen Burnie High School after a student fight.

The December 1993 agreement between Dr. Parham and the Office for Civil Rights settled the 1991 complaint. While the civil rights office did not say race was a factor in school discipline cases, the agreement spells out 16 changes, including "cultural sensitivity training" for all school employees.

Mr. Snowden said the school system narrowly averted another investigation by the civil rights office when the Severna Park parents changed their minds about filing a complaint after some of the students involved were readmitted and Dr. Parham offered "personal assurances" that race would no longer be a factor in discipline procedures.

"There's been one study after another showing that Anne Arundel County has a very serious systemic problem," Mr. Snowden said. "It is my hope that Dr. Parham will be able to do what previous superintendents have failed miserably at doing -- bringing equity and parity to all students."

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