River Hill takes a look at promise unfulfilled

Howard community, high school seek solutions to race and class strife

April 24, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

River Hill, the last of the planned villages in the social experiment called Columbia, is the wealthiest, and also seemingly the furthest from developer James W. Rouse's vision of a town where black and white, rich and poor would coexist.

The village has no subsidized housing, the numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics are negligible and the high school - a county prize - is facing more visible racial and socioeconomic strife than any other high school in Howard County.

This week, a long public silence on racial tensions at River Hill High School ended when the school co-sponsored a community forum, together with the River Hill Village Board and the Office of Human Rights, to begin a discussion about what's wrong at the school and what can be done about the trouble.

"Those of us who live in this community know that this is a very diverse community," said River Hill Principal Scott Pfeifer. "We have had troubling times with our students and our parents and teachers. ... But only if we tap the minds and hearts of this community will we bring about the type of community we all long for."

African-American parents at the forum Monday night complained that their children are ignored, stereotyped and even racially harassed. One said her son had received death threats. Another said she had to involve police to make neighborhood boys leave her son alone.

"White kids expect what they see on television quite often, and if you don't fit that mold, then that's not acceptable," said parent Carolyn Jordan Alexander.

Rouse began building Columbia in 1967 as a study in harmony. Blacks and whites, rich and poor would live together, go to school together, shop, worship and play together. The project's utopian goal was that neighbors, classmates and co-workers would all be different but be treated the same.

In 10-year-old River Hill, some are saying that hasn't happened.

"We moved to this county for our family to be able to live with different races, religions, economics, professional backgrounds," said Melvina Brown, whose five sons graduated from either Glenelg or River Hill high schools. "In River Hill, I really feel there is no Rouse dream."

Howard County school officials stress that issues of discrimination exist not just in River Hill but in all of Howard's schools.

But Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett said yesterday that the overt intolerance at River Hill High School is unique because of the make-up of its surrounding community and the fact that it is a magnet school, drawing students from all over Howard County.

"Because of that, students don't always have ownership in the school itself, and that creates problems with people understanding and appreciating each other," Plunkett said.

"But we can sensitize people. People can learn to appreciate and respect one another. So there's hope. The climate at River Hill can be improved."

Whites at the River Hill forum had their own complaints.

Casey Hedden, a senior at the high school, said many whites feel overwhelmed, or even offended, by programs set aside for black students. And they're insulted when the few black students at the school cluster together in isolation.

"Having a black student achievement program seems to defeat the purpose of what we are trying to do here," she said, indicating that the goal should be for all students to achieve.

Conflicts in the school and community aren't only black and white.

One parent, Carrolyn Bostick, lamented the perceived caste system that separates working mothers from those who can afford to stay at home.

River Hill Village Board member Dipti Shah said there are "a lot of negative perceptions toward Asians" in the school and community, post-Sept. 11.

"It's all of us that face it [discrimination]," she said.

No demographic statistics are gathered specifically for the village of River Hill, but if the high school is a mirror of the community, the community stands out sharply from other Columbia villages.

About 78 percent of the high school's students are white, about 6 percent are black, 15 percent are Asian and just over 1 percent are Hispanic. Real estate agents say the average home price in the village is $436,000.

By contrast, in Columbia's oldest village, Wilde Lake, 53 percent of the high school students are white, 36 percent black, 7.6 percent Asian and just over 3 percent Hispanic. The average house costs about $130,000, though many families live in homes that are hundreds of thousands more, or in apartments subsidized by the government.

The differences seem to show up most often at the high school.

Last fall, for example, someone scrawled a racial epithet on a poster produced by a black student depicting native Africans and their customs. That vandalism sparked discussions, in which black students said they felt marginalized or ignored by teachers at the school or, worse, singled out unfairly for discipline.

This week, their parents agreed.

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