Amid learning, racial fears

Edgewater: Slurs and death threats at a predominantly white high school in Anne Arundel County have alarmed black parents and students.

April 23, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

One morning last month - a few days after someone spray-painted a message threatening the lives of black students on a stairwell at South River High School - Ashley Scott decided not to get out of bed.

The 17-year-old African-American student told her mother that she wasn't returning to the school. She was tired of being where she felt unwelcome and, lately, afraid.

"Obviously, they don't want our presence there," said Ashley, a junior. "You can't get more blunt than that. ... I'm a black person, and they want me to die."

As many students think about final exams and summer vacations, the talk at this school in southern Anne Arundel County has been about a series of acts that underscore racial tensions in the community.

Three recent acts of vandalism - graffiti depicting swastikas, racial slurs and death threats - have alarmed parents and students, triggered a police investigation and prompted administrators to try to calm fears at this predominantly white school of more than 2,000 students.

At a news conference this month, Anne Arundel County school officials said such acts wouldn't be tolerated.

Thursday, the school detailed its response to the past year's racial incidents, including 24 suspensions and three expulsions, in a special-edition newsletter to parents and students.

"There has been a small group of individuals inside and outside the walls of this building that practice hate and divisiveness," Principal James Hamilton said. "Those individuals have gotten a very clear message that we find those acts outrageous and intolerable."

Some African-American parents say that the school hasn't done enough and that they are considering transferring their children.

Others are determined to hold their ground. After the first graffiti incident last month, several families formed a support group, Parents Against Unlawful Harassment, to push for enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy on racism.

South River High is in Edgewater, a fast-growing community of suburban homes amid farms and wetlands on the opposite side of the South River from Annapolis. Area residents flock to its waterfront restaurants on weekends.

Racial tensions have flared before in schools south of the South River. Three years ago, black parents at Southern High School in Harwood complained to schools officials about racial slurs directed at their children and public references to lynching.

African-American leaders say they have been concerned about other racial incidents. In 2000, the county superintendent of schools at the time, who was black, received a racially charged death threat after she proposed temporarily moving pupils from mostly white Mayo Elementary to mostly black Annapolis Middle. No arrests were made.

More recently, some community leaders have expressed concern that race might be a factor behind neighborhood opposition to a predominantly black college's plans for a satellite campus in Edgewater.

The area is also home to a neo-Nazi group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such groups.

Anne Arundel school board President Michael J. McNelly, a former county police officer, said racial tensions are not new and don't represent the community as a whole.

"This has cropped up in this area over the years periodically," said McNelly, whose school district includes Edgewater. "There has always been a small pocket in that part of Anne Arundel County that are a zillion years behind the times. ... It has unfairly tainted South River High School."

Many students at South River - a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence that is 93 percent white and 4 percent black - say they had no idea that any racial problems existed until they learned of the graffiti incidents.

The school's 80 or so black students have been acutely aware of such problems.

Two years ago, several students and parents said, someone floated a rumor of a death threat against black students. Many students stayed home from school as a result. School officials said they were unaware of the incident.

In the fall, several white students showed up at school in clothes bearing the Confederate flag, leading to a fight.

School administrators worked to curb the problems. But last month, they were dismayed to find the racist threat scrawled in large black letters on the wall of a heavily used stairwell.

Police were summoned, and the school temporarily brought in extra staff members, police officers and parent volunteers to monitor the hallways. Administrators condemned the act and implemented sensitivity training for students.

Two more incidents followed. On April 5, swastikas were painted around the exterior of the school and a racial epithet on the front door. On April 14, students found racist graffiti in a hallway and on a speaker in the ceiling, school officials said.

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