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.

"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 the 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.

"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.

The poster vandalism at River Hill shocked Burke. 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."

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.

"There are a few people who think that way [like the vandal], but for the most part, I don't think it's a big problem at our school," said senior Tammy Gulbrandsen, a senior. "I think there's some tensions here, but I don't see it that much."

Gulbrandsen said she is grateful that Pfiefer announced the poster vandalism to the school -- although she is pessimistic about results of the respect session.

"I think they can only do so much. I think Mr. Pfiefer has always made it clear that's not tolerated. But there's only so much they can do to enforce it," she said. "Teachers can't go around saying, `Are you saying something bad about someone?' It can't really be taught or enforced. But it can be known that that's not really appreciated or tolerated in this school."

Pfiefer says that is his goal in taking class time to discuss issues such as respect or cliques or racial tensions.

"The amount of time you spend on these things reveals the priority that we place on them," he said."Kids should feel that there is a climate of mutual respect. They should feel comfortable, regardless of their race, color, creed or disability."

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