School board hopeful makes race an issue Former Carroll teacher says bias unaddressed

May 10, 1998|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Thelma P. Smith spent one year teaching in the Carroll County school system. She does not have many fond memories of the experience.

As a teacher at Francis Scott Key High School, Smith says she endured continual racial harassment from administrators, teachers, parents and students because she was the school's only African-American teacher.

The discriminatory treatment, Smith says, resulted in unfair and negative teaching evaluations, caused her to become clinically depressed and ultimately led to her dismissal as a teacher in December.

It also convinced her to seek a seat on the county Board of Education.

A highly charged topic

In Carroll, where 3 percent of the population is black and occasional racial incidents involving the Ku Klux Klan and the display of Confederate flags are reported, race is a highly charged topic.

Smith is leading a small group of blacks in Carroll who are working to revive the county's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that disbanded five years ago because of lack of interest.

"After spending a year in the system, I know it is a racist, hostile environment for minorities, but they [county school officials] don't want to confront it," said Smith, 41, of Eldersburg. "As a minority, I was totally ignored, totally dismissed as an individual."

Smith -- who filed a discrimination complaint in August against the Carroll County school system with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- says she could bring a minority perspective to the school board. That complaint is under investigation.

"To me, the board represents exclusivity," said Smith, who is teaching part time at Baltimore City Community College. "They may have females there, but there is no ethnic representation."

Smith's charges come at a time when Carroll school officials are trying to recruit more minority teachers and address the concerns of minority students.

This year, school recruiters made more trips to predominantly black colleges. Minority teachers make up about 1 percent of the staff in county public schools.

Next school year, school officials plan to establish a mentor program for minority students and work closely with churches to encourage their young black members to pursue teaching careers.

A personnel matter

School officials declined to comment on Smith's charges or her campaign for a school board seat, saying her case is a personnel matter.

But the written record from the school board's Jan. 14 decision, relating to her dismissal, disputes Smith's allegations of unfair treatment.

The board upheld her supervisors' findings that she did not create a positive teaching environment, and supported Superintendent Brian L. Lockard's recommendation for her dismissal.

"It is unfortunate that Ms. Smith is of the opinion that nearly any circumstance in which she had a disagreement with another person is the consequence of racial bias towards her," the board wrote.

"Ms. Smith always presented an explanation in which bias or animosity was attributed to the other person in an attempt to excuse her own inappropriate statements or judgment," it continued.

Smith, who is appealing her dismissal to the State Board of Education, maintains that the county board refuses to acknowledge the existence of racial problems within the Carroll County school system.

"Despite the history that exists in terms of slavery, the board didn't know what I was talking about -- racial slurs, condescending behavior from colleagues," Smith said. "They were afraid to say black, race, prejudice or discrimination -- it was like they were above all that."

Smith had sought a job in the Carroll County school system for five years before being hired as a business education teacher in July 1996. A resident of Carroll County for seven years, she was impressed by the academic success of county schools and hoped to work her way up to an administrative position.

She was assigned to teach keyboarding and computer literacy at the school near Uniontown.

'Backwoods behavior'

From the start, Smith says, she encountered "backwoods behavior and hostility." She describes a school where racism was pervasive and administrators repeatedly ignored or minimized her complaints about disrespectful students and parents.

Among the incidents cited by Smith:

Each time she entered the school cafeteria for lunch, a certain cafeteria worker walked away from the serving line but returned to serve white teachers.

A student shoved her in a crowded school hallway, almost knocking her to the floor and aggravating a back injury. After the student was returned to class, she says, she complained to school administrators that he hadn't been disciplined properly. The student was suspended for the rest of the day after Smith mentioned filing assault charges against him with the police, she says.

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