Schools seeking to defuse unrest, racial tension

October 16, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

Fights, concerns abouts racial tension and a lack of civility in some Anne Arundel County schools are prompting school officials, civic leaders and students to call for system-wide changes.

"The school system has a responsibility to see if it's coincidental or accidental, but we seem to keep having brawls, melees and fights, and young black students being charged," said Carl O. Snowden, a Ward 5 Annapolis alderman and civil rights activist. "They need to do a comprehensive review."

Last spring, a racial remark touched off a fight at Severna Park High School. Last month, a Chesapeake Bay Middle School student complained of racial harassment and got into a fight near her school bus stop.

On Sept. 30, a brawl at Meade High School sent five students, a teacher and the school librarian to the hospital. It started when one student bumped into another and didn't say "Excuse me."

Four students were suspended from Glen Burnie High School on Thursday after a fight that started in the cafeteria shortly before noon, said Principal Oliver Wittig. He said it was one of more than a dozen fights since school began in August.

The school created a conflict-resolution team about three weeks ago after a fistfight between two girls alarmed administrators.

"Schools are a microcosm of what happens in the community," said Superintendent Carol S. Parham. "What happens in the community and is portrayed in the media -- all that baggage is carried right into our schools."

To almost no one's surprise, detectives investigating the brawl at Meade High said students they interviewed about the fight complained of racial tension. The school's population is 45 percent black, 39 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian.

Principal George Kispert said he had not seen "that built-up racial tension" but that the first step would be to teach students to get along by insisting they use polite phrases such as "excuse me, or thank you, or I'm sorry."

Since the fight at Meade, one student was expelled; four were placed on extended suspension -- two to await the outcome of criminal charges and two to await placement in The Learning Center, a school for students with behavioral problems. Two more were reinstated in school but could be expelled for their next offense and two were exonerated.

Eight more have been suspended pending disciplinary action, said Huntley Cross, the superintendent's special assistant for discipline.

Students at Annapolis High School have taken it upon themselves to find ways of getting along in school. Tired of having petty quarrels, verbal abuse and fights interrupt the school week, about 250 students withdrew to Sandy Point State Park this month to ponder the problems and search for answers.

JaCina Stanton, a 15-year-old sophomore, said after the meeting that the discussions might improve life at Annapolis High.

"With something like this, the school becomes more unified," she said. "In school, you can't really talk to each other. This helps to get people communicating."

The system also has started programs in peer mediation and peer counseling in some schools. A multicultural awareness session has also been included this year as part of teachers' training. The cultural awareness program eventually will be broadened to help make students aware of the value of all races.

Dr. Parham said hiring a human relations coordinator will help address issues such as how to improve the way students get along.

"Discipline is one piece of it, the anti-violence campaign is another, as well as the human relations angle -- how we as members of the human family get along with each other," Dr. Parham in an interview Monday. "We have to pay more attention and put more resources toward solving these problems."

The school system made plans this year to change its discipline policy after Dr. Parham signed an agreement with the federal Office for Civil Rights. The agency had been investigating complaints dating back several years that black students were more harshly disciplined than white students accused of the same offenses.

After the Severna Park incident, parents and community leaders were upset because none of the white students involved in the fight were disciplined. Black students who had been suspended were quickly reinstated. All six of the students charged in the Meade High incident, which involved 10 to 15 students, are black.

Several community groups have appeared at school board meetings to volunteer their support. Monday night the Maryland Forum of African-American Leaders, a group of community activists, offered to help improve the school environment for the county's students.

Lewis Bracy, a member of the group, expressed concern Monday at a forum for parents and students at Meade High School.

"People see a fight like what happened here and they wonder why it became so violent and where all that rage came from," he said.

Donald Gobbi, the school's librarian, was kicked and pummeled when he tried to break up the fight. Mr. Kispert, the principal, said Mr. Gobbi has asked to be transferred to another school.

Marie Taylor, mother of a Meade freshman, said she thought the fighting occurred "because the children have no respect for themselves or each other."

Ummiel Muldrow, a senior at the school, said she wasn't frightened by the fight but was concerned that no school administrators were in the area when the fight began. No one patrols the hallways during class or between classes, when hallways are most crowded.

Another student told Mr. Kispert and parents Monday night that students were concerned about the fight and racial tension.

"We need security in the school, and it's your responsibility to provide it," he said. "Otherwise, stuff like this is going to happen, and people will feel they have to defend themselves."

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