Racial act in Carroll spurs effort to teach tolerance Black students respond to incident at school

October 27, 1998|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

At Francis Scott Key High School in mostly rural northwest Carroll County, the few black students are used to the occasional threatening looks and the racial slurs muttered in the hallways.

But they weren't prepared for what happened at the homecoming dance three weeks ago.

In a gesture directed toward a black student, a white student pantomimed the motion of pulling a noose. The school principal intervened, removed the white student and his friends from the gym, and the dance continued.

But the offensive incident has not been forgotten. The lynching gesture at the dance shattered the uneasy coexistence between the black students and a small number of white students who routinely make racially motivated remarks.

"I think that it was a wake-up call and made us realize what was going on in our school and we need to take action," said senior Andre Gerald, 17, who moved in August with his family from urban Prince George's County to the spreading suburbia of Carroll.

The offensive gesture, which was targeted toward Gerald's younger brother Tony, might have been the catalyst to opening up a dialogue on prejudice and race relations at Francis Scott Key. The school has fewer than 30 black students in its population of 1,070.

The incident prompted Gerald and two of his friends to launch an effort to educate the school population on race relations, prejudice, tolerance and respect.

"We came to the conclusion that we have to find the roots of the problem. Most of it is coming straight from the home. We need to educate students, parents and the community as a whole," Gerald said.

Gerald and two fellow students, Wayne Hill and Perry Jones III, both 17, are working with teachers to carry out their plan. They want to have a multicultural day before Christmas and are working on a questionnaire that addresses issues such as respect among students and staff, and discipline at school.

"It seems like things are actually getting done now instead of being put to the side," Jones said.

Problem not unique

Students, teachers and administrators at Francis Scott Key High say that, for the most part, the racial climate at the school is harmonious. But they acknowledge that incidents similar to the one at the homecoming dance arise from time to time at the school.

"Racism exists in society, and what happens in the community happens in school," said Principal George Phillips. "Not all students at Key are as accepting of others as we would want our community to be."

Students who were at the dance say Phillips met that night with the student who made the racially offensive gesture, his friends and their parents. Phillips said he could not comment on any student discipline matter.

Racial problems among students are not unique to Francis Scott Key, said Gregory C. Eckles, Carroll's director of secondary schools.

"Racial incidents occur in a number of different schools at different times," he said.

Carroll County's minority population is about 5 percent.

Phyllis Black, who was recently hired by the school system as a consultant to help school officials recruit and retain more minority teachers, is a 1974 graduate of Francis Scott Key. She recalls racially motivated fights and name-calling.

"It disheartens me to hear that it's still taking place," said Black, 41. "It's pathetic, but sometimes you almost expect it."

Incident 'a shock'

The incident at the homecoming dance occurred about halfway through the evening.

Sophomore Tony Gerald was on the dance floor with his date at his first Francis Scott Key dance, when he spotted a white student making a racially offensive gesture toward him.

"It was a shock to me. I've been raised to like everybody," said Tony Gerard, 15, a member of the junior varsity football team.

"I was ready to leave, but a lot of people said there's nothing to worry about," he said.

Key students say a small group of pupils is responsible for most of the racial problems. But typically their behavior is not as blatant and threatening as the homecoming dance incident.

"Mostly it's name-calling under the breath and you get looks, but nothing that big," said Hill.

'Intimidating' action

The homecoming dance incident was entirely different, said Steve Findeisen, a social studies teacher and adviser to the Multicultural Club, which has about 50 members.

"This was definitive and very provocative. It said, 'We want you to know we're saying this to you,' " said Findeisen. "It wasn't as anonymous.

"This was intended, I think, as an intimidating type of display," he said.

The racist gesture sparked emotions of anger, confusion and shock among the black students.

"It made me feel rage," Andre Gerald said. "It was my brother. My first reaction was to lash out, but then I felt that wouldn't solve anything. It would make the problem worse."

Felt betrayed

Hill and Jones felt betrayed, more than anything else.

"We've known most of those people since elementary or middle school," Jones said. "And after all this time they still have nerve enough to act like that."

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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