Board decries racist graffiti

School officials urge unity against vandalism

`We don't tolerate it'

Inquiry, diversity event suggested for high school


April 24, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County school board condemned last night the racist graffiti found at South River High School several times in recent weeks targeting African-American students, and it urged the community to stand together against harassment in county schools.

"This board will not tolerate any attack, any threats, any harassment of any kind against any of our students for any reason," board President Michael J. McNelly said.

McNelly also thanked a handful of African-American community leaders who attended the meeting to express concern about events at the Edgewater school "for reminding all of us that we, as citizens of this great county, have a responsibility ... when these things arise, to deal with them reactively and proactively and to say we don't tolerate it."

Board member Eugene Peterson said the vandalism was committed by a "coward" who "doesn't have the decency to stand up and confront people in an intelligent manner about the issue of race in America."

Clemon H. Wesley, a co-chairman of RESPECT, a coalition of black organizations in Anne Arundel, told the board he thinks the community does not condone the acts. "The majority of white and black people in the community are decent, hardworking, liberal, broad-minded people," Wesley said. But he added that he feared things could get out of control if residents do not react quickly to the crimes.

"A white friend of mine told me today that when he was a student in Edgewater, African-American students had to be out of Edgewater by sundown," Wesley said "This is no time for a re-creation of racial strife here in our homeland."

Speaking as the father of a student at Annapolis High School, community activist Carl O. Snowden, who is an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens, urged the board to investigate whether the incidents at South River were isolated or a "systemic" problem in the county's schools. He also asked residents to speak out against a neo-Nazi group based in Edgewater.

Board members offered ideas for improving the situation. Peterson urged the community to establish a yearly celebration of diversity. "I'll be the first one to be there and stay for the whole celebration," he pledged.

Board member Tony Spencer said students at South River and other area schools should research the region's history to understand how racial dynamics have changed over the years.

Board Vice President Carlesa Finney urged everyone not to forget the impact on students who have been victimized. "If we could all put ourselves in the shoes of any student who is afraid to go to any of our schools, we should all be appalled and highly upset," Finney said.

After listening to the public comments, Superintendent Eric J. Smith told the audience that his office has sent a letter to all school employees clearly stating the system's stand against harassment. "I have made my statement," Smith said. "The next will be done through action."

The superintendent said during a news conference two weeks ago that the school system was working with police to find and prosecute the vandals. "We will treat all children fairly, with due process, " he said yesterday, "but [such crimes] will not be tolerated."

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