Student body right, or about-face? Howard schools chief orders photo change as calendar is criticized

August 20, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school system is recalling 43,000 just-printed school calendars because of complaints that a photo on their covers is racially insensitive -- igniting an intense debate in the county over diversity and political correctness.

The debate began last week when the school system distributed boxes of its annual school-year calendar to each of Howard's 58 schools -- a calendar bearing a photo of white students in the foreground and African-American and Asian students in its background shadows.

The calendars were to be sent home with students once school begins Monday. But before that could happen, complaints over the photo started cropping up -- prompting Howard school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey to recall them.

When school opens next week, students instead will receive copies of the September and October pages of the school calendar, along with a statement from Hickey apologizing to the community "for failing to recognize the negative connotation" of the cover photo.

"A goal of the Howard County Public School System is to ensure that diversity and commonality are valued and we feel this action was necessary to affirm our commitment to this goal," Hickey's statement reads.

Complete reprinted calendars will be distributed in mid-October -- with new cover photos.

Hickey tentatively decided yesterday to have the covers reprinted with a series of photos at a cost of $5,700, said Patti Caplan, the school system's spokeswoman. The Howard school board likely will be consulted on the expense this week.

A leader of Howard's African-American Coalition, which represents 50 organizations in the county, endorsed the recall.

"If Mike Hickey wants to redo this thing and spend a lousy $5,700, it's money well-spent," said Ken Jennings, a coalition vice president. "What's the damage to the community if it's sent out? People who are not victims of discrimination never seem to understand."

But some school activists think the move is silly.

"This is PC at its worst," said Wanda Hurt, a member of Howard's PTA Council. "I am offended that the picture might be pulled. I'm three-eighths Native American so I classify as a minority. I think we're getting over-sensitive and divisive.

"Dr. Hickey needs to develop a backbone," Hurt said. "There are more serious problems in our school system than a picture."

The first complaints over the photo were from the office of the school system's Black Student Achievement Program, which is aimed at helping black students improve their test scores and grades.

Gloria Washington, director of that program, was not available for comment yesterday.

Some Howard residents also complained about the photo -- even though the calendars had not been distributed to the public.

"The first impression it gave was not a good one," said Caplan, the school system spokeswoman.

"We have such a beautiful mix of folks. We want all the children to feel that they are welcomed in school."

At issue now is the cost of reprinting.

"The [school] budget is so tight, I don't know where $5,700 would come from," said Susan J. Cook, school board chairwoman, who added that she is not offended by the photo.

"Faces of diversity are represented on the calendar," she said. "I didn't look at those sweet faces and find anything appalling.

"We usually do not interfere in administrative decisions, but when the issue is attached to dollars, we do get involved," she said of plans for the board to take up the matter at its meeting Thursday.

The photo in question was taken almost 18 months ago while a photographer and Caplan, the schools' spokeswoman, roamed the hallways of Hammond Middle School in Laurel looking for students.

When they found a group, the photographer asked them to turn around and snapped their picture, Caplan said.

She said she checked to make sure there were boys and girls in the picture and that there was an ethnic mix. But she added: "I did not look for positioning."

This school year's calendar was the first time in at least a decade that a photo was used on the cover instead of a graphic, Caplan said. On last school year's calendar, a graphic of the ABCs and animals was used.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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