Trying for tolerance

Vandalism: A racial slur scrawled on an English project in a Howard County high school has students, staff and administrators taking a new look at race and discrimination.

October 21, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Velesha Burke said she dreamed about how she was going to turn her English project into an "A" that other students would envy. "The project really meant a lot to me," the River Hill High School senior said.

When her group's collage depicting native Africans and their customs was mounted on a hallway bulletin board -- emblazoned with an "A" -- Burke's pride swelled.

But now pain surpasses pride when she thinks about the poster. Someone scrawled a racial epithet on the artwork, and the school is struggling to deal with the consequences of that vicious act.

"The whole point of the poster was to show that racism is not tolerated anywhere," said Burke, 17. "[But] someone wrote a racial slur on my poster. ... On the bottom of it, someone had written `nigger' in big, black letters."

After taking down the poster, River Hill Principal Scott Pfiefer questioned students about who is responsible. And last week he urged students and teachers to think about the incident in the context of a previously planned "school climate activity" discussion about respect.

The incident spotlights challenges regarding race and discrimination faced by Howard County schools.

How can schools promote tolerance and respect?

At River Hill, as in any school, it is difficult to do. But students and adults agree: It is crucial that they try.

Raising awareness

"Sept. 11, and its aftermath, has raised all of our awareness for us to know about differences in our community," said Eileen Woodbury, a Howard school administrator who deals with racial and socioeconomic issues.

Woodbury said Pfiefer's efforts to encourage students to explore social issues in classroom discussions are "unique" among Howard County high schools. But, she said, the issues are not unique to River Hill.

"There are discrimination incidents that are ongoing throughout the system in some category. There is discrimination happening at every school," said Woodbury, the school district's special assistant for equity assurance.

She said programs and curricula at elementary and middle schools deal with discrimination.

"We are still having to look at what is the most effective way that we can address prejudice at the high school level," she said.

`Some things ... to deal with'

The poster vandalism at River Hill shocked Burke, even though African-Americans are a minority at the school - 111 students out of more than 1,700.

Although many African-Americans at River Hill say they feel marginalized or ignored, blatant displays of hatred are rare at the Clarksville school.

"Overall, River Hill is a really good school," Burke said. "But there's just some things they have to deal with."

Some black students at River Hill say they are not groomed to take part in gifted/talented programs or are not encouraged to take higher-level courses the way that white students are.

Others say that rules are not enforced evenly and that some teachers treat many black students unfairly.

"I know when I first got here, I felt as if my teacher was ignoring me because I was black," said senior Crystal Pelton, 17. "She would never call on me, ever. But if I would get up or scream out her name, then she would want to discipline me. But that was the only way to get her attention."

Burke said Pelton's feelings are reinforced by stories that are told repeatedly in black circles.

"A lot of teachers here are open to different cultures, but then there are some who -- they won't say it, but -- you can see the difference in how they treat the other students," she said.

Working on it

But it isn't just teachers and administrators. Students can also give off airs of intolerance.

"You can never be your own race and just like everybody," Pelton said. "If you hang out with white people and you're black, then you're [called] white. And if you're white and you hang out with black people, then you're [called] black."

Pelton is president of Black Student Achievement Program (BSAP) at River Hill, which students, teachers and administrators say has done a lot to raise awareness of issues faced by black students. When many black freshmen said they were made to feel as though they did not fit in, for example, BSAP worked with Pfiefer to give incoming ninth-graders advice about how to feel ownership in a school so big and so, well, white.

"Because we are not real diverse," Pfiefer said, "we've had to find ways to really show we are valuing those kids who are finding themselves in a very significant minority, some of them for the first time in their lives."

`Some tensions here'

For those in the majority, the white students, news of Burke's defaced project was especially shocking because many of them are not aware of the underlying problems their black peers say they are dealing with.

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