Howard teens report racial discrimination at high school

Parents demand training in diversity, zero tolerance

December 14, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Despite state and Howard County regulations prohibiting racial discrimination against students, African-American parents say it still goes on -- even at Centennial High School, where high test scores make it easy to believe all is well.

"Everything gets thrown up under the rug because of it," said Ernie Gibbs, who has a sophomore daughter at the Ellicott City school.

Gibbs and about a dozen other black Centennial parents, all members of the Parents Council for Black Students, gathered Wednesday night with a representative from the Howard County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to share their stories and form a plan. They said they have had enough -- enough of their children coming home in tears, enough of administrators who they say turn a blind eye, enough of racism.

They're demanding immediate action in the form of zero-tolerance policies, staff diversity training and student assemblies outlining the damage done through prejudice.

"We aren't asking for any privileges. These are rights of every child within the school; it's that simple," said Maceo M. NeSmith Jr.

He and his wife, Rosa NeSmith, called the Wednesday meeting, spurred by the recent punishment of their son, who received Saturday detention for confronting a girl he says has frequently called him racist names. The penalty was withdrawn after the NeSmiths complained about discrimination to the school's administration.

"If this is the perception of these families, then it's a very serious concern for me and my administrative team," said Principal Lynda Mitic, who plans to retire Jan 1. She added that she and her staff are committed to resolving the problem.

Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett had been working with the council and was to meet with school leaders and parents Dec. 4. But he sent a substitute in his place -- Eileen Woodbury, who works to ensure equality throughout the school system -- after schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke launched an investigation that day that might preclude Plunkett from continuing his facilitator role.

The inquiry examines unproven allegations, from someone claiming to be a Centennial teacher, that Plunkett influenced grade changes to help a co-worker's relative. Plunkett denies the charges, and the members of the council are beside themselves.

"We cannot tolerate that. We want to have a meeting with Plunkett and a meeting with the superintendent," said Mariam Breant, who has three daughters at Centennial. "We don't want other people."

Breant and others say Plunkett, who is African-American, was making headway for them and was instrumental in bringing more African-American teachers to the school this year and in working with their children individually to improve their attitudes.

"Mr. Plunkett talked to [my son] at length," said Jewel Callier, who credited the conversation with giving her child direction.

Plunkett said Friday that he still plans to ensure Centennial reaches its goals.

"There are some concerns that we have to address at the school, most definitely," he said. "For example, Centennial has no African-American males in its National Honor Society, and that's not acceptable."

School board member Patricia S. Gordon said she is watching the school's climate, but not as a public official.

"As a grandparent, I'm keeping an eye on what's happening in the school because it might have an impact on my grandchildren," said Gordon, whose son, Robert Gordon, is a member of the parents council and has two children at Centennial.

Six percent of Centennial's population is African-American, while 68 percent of students there are white. Nearly 24 percent are Asian.

Centennial's High School Assessment tests from last year show 78 percent of black ninth-graders passed the English exam, compared with 86 percent of whites and 87 percent of Asians. Geometry results show a greater disparity: 50 percent of African-Americans failed the test, compared with 16 percent of whites and 20 percent of Asians.

Strides have been made at the school recently, however, said Tony Powell, a member of Centennial's School Improvement Team and a member of the parents council. This year, the school has increased its representation of black students in honors courses by 20 percent, which Powell said was a major goal. The mean grade point average of African-American students is up as well, he said, to 2.8 from 2.5 last school year.

"I'm OK with the pace that we are improving academically, but that's not the issue right now," said Powell, whose 10th-grade daughter said she has never experienced racism at Centennial. "There are a number of African-American students or parents who feel there's an issue of insensitivity within the school, and that has to be addressed."

The NeSmiths' son, Maceo M. NeSmith III, a 16-year-old junior at Centennial, said he is frequently made to feel inadequate.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.