Schools praised for changes since probe of racial incidents

October 20, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County schools no longer employ "a head-in-the-sand approach" in handling racial incidents, according to a long-awaited report on alleged discrimination in the school system.

The report, released this month by the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, gives the schools high marks for changes since 1992, when the commission began a four-month investigation of complaints of racial incidents.

Since that investigation, the school system has required all school employees -- even bus drivers -- to undergo multicultural communication training, the report said.

Other changes noted in the report include:

* The system's previous human-relations director, who claimed she wasn't aware of any racial incidents in the county schools over a 20-year span, retired and was replaced by a specialist in the field.

* Every school now has its own human-relations committee.

* Elementary-school teachers use a program aimed at teaching human-relations skills to young students.

* Principals have a new system for principals to report racial incidents to the system's headquarters.

* The school system and county human-relations office now meet quarterly to share information about racial incidents and to plan human-relations programs.

"There's better acknowledgment on the part of the schools that racism does exist and it must be dealt with when it occurs," said Henry Ford, a state human-relations commission deputy. "Just because Howard County has this reputation of being affluent, particularly in Columbia, it's not a perfect society. You have to deal with problems."

The state will continue to monitor some issues that have not been resolved. These include the high suspension rate of black male students and the disproportionate placement of black students in special education classes.

But school board chairman Dana Hanna said he wasn't convinced the state commission investigation was necessary in the first place.

"We had some incidents that pointed to isolated problems," he said. "[Now] we're doing better than we did, but we didn't do badly.

We've gone from good to better."

The investigation began in 1992 at the request of the county Human Rights Commission and the county Office of Human Rights after both offices' four years of attempts to discuss alleged racial incidents with the school system failed.

At the time, two black parents dissatisfied with responses they were getting at their schools told the school board that classmates taunted their children and uttered racial slurs at them. In one of these incidents, one of the parents said, two white classmates sprayed disinfectant on a Glenwood Middle School student during a bus ride home.

Several dozen other racial incidents also had occurred in the schools, leading to the state investigation.

But few reports had been made -- despite a system policy requiring that all bias and discrimination incidents be reported to its human relations office.

The state commission called the school system's practices a "head-in-the-sand approach," which made the schools appear to condone racial, religious and ethnic intolerance.

Despite the schools' changes since then, some parents say it's too early to tell whether they're successful.

Evonnie Gbadebo, one of two parents who stepped forward two years ago to complain about a racial incident involving her daughter, remained cautious.

"If the Board of Education and administrators have taken their heads out of the sand, then we are headed in the right direction," she said. "But we can get off course again. In a sense, I feel I need to take a wait-and-see posture."

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