The head of the Howard County school system told a group of black parents last night that more needs to be done to resolve the problems facing African-American students, but he pledged that improvements will be made.
"The way we have addressed the problems has been inadequate, and I acknowledge that," Superintendent Michael E. Hickey told the 40 people attending the meeting of the Black Student Achievement Program Parent Advisory Council. "But people at the schools are trying to deal with the problems."
Dr. Hickey said the Black Student Achievement Program has made "significant accomplishments" in aiding black students through its mentoring programs.
"But we still have not resolved the problems. We may have lessened them, but they are still there," he said.
Racial relations have been a long-standing problem in the county school system, as was stated in a 1992 report of the Maryland Commission on Human Relations that concluded that the county schools employed a "head-in-the-sand approach" to handling racial incidents.
Although an updated report released by the commission last month said the school system has improved with respect to its minority students, black students continue to be disproportionately suspended from school, and many parents asked last night whether enough has been done.
Last school year, blacks made up 16.6 percent of students in the county's high schools while accounting for 36 percent of suspensions.
"We are deeply concerned about the disproportionate number of suspensions of African-American students, and we believe it indicates a need that cannot be ignored," said Natalie Wilson, vice president of the group of parents of black students. "We do not condone misbehavior . . . but we want to get to the bottom of what is causing the suspensions and then to be able to offer some ways to help." Mrs. Wilson said the group hopes to assemble a position paper on ways to better handle student misbehavior and deliver it to the county Board of Education.
Parents also noted that black students have tended to have lower test scores, and they pointed to the disproportionate number of referrals of black students to special education classes as an example of racial insensitivity in the school system.
Dr. Hickey agreed with the group's concerns about the statistical disparities and said that a study is under way to examine suspension rates. "We will conduct a much more detailed analysis of the data to really try to get a better picture of the problem we are dealing with," Dr. Hickey said.
When the study is concluded in early January, parents, students and teachers then will be brought together to identify ways to address the problems, Dr. Hickey said.
In written questions submitted to the leaders of the group, several parents urged Dr. Hickey to use the study as a way to not just look at black students, but also to see if there are patterns in which teachers tend to issue more suspensions.
Questions also were raised about the hiring of black teachers and the inclusion of black history in the curriculum. Dr. Hickey said improvements have been made in both of those areas and said the schools are still trying to do more.
County schools already have made a number of changes in response to the state human relations commission's report two years ago, including requiring multicultural training for all
employees and hiring a human relations specialist.
But several parents said that some teachers lack respect for black parents and black students. Dr. Hickey told them to go to
him directly if they have specific complaints.