Civil rights complaint targets county schools

NAACP, others say blacks get unequal treatment

Schools face civil rights complaint

Anne Arundel

May 18, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

With the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education as a backdrop, a group of black leaders filed a civil rights complaint yesterday against the Anne Arundel County school system that alleges unequal treatment of African-American students.

The group contends that the school system "has institutionalized separate and unequal advance placement opportunities for white and African American students," according to its complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

The complaint cites data that show blacks are underrepresented in honors and Advanced Placement classes and the prestigious International Baccalaureate magnet program, and are more often suspended or expelled. It also alleges that some teachers, guidance counselors and administrators harbor lower expectations for blacks.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated that Annapolis parent Pamela Bukowski opposes the school system's efforts to increase enrollment of black students in Advanced Placement classes. Bukowski said she opposes efforts to increase enrollment of students who are not prepared for the college-level courses.

"We believe that Anne Arundel County schools are limiting educational and employment opportunities for our youth," said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Anne Arundel branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a lead complainant, at an afternoon news conference. "We are prepared to produce witnesses that will testify that our youth have been subjected to a double standard."

The complaint asks the Education Department to require the Anne Arundel school board to craft an "action plan" to remedy the disparity.

The complaint comes two months after the ouster of Annapolis High School Principal Deborah Williams, whose eight-month tenure fanned racial tensions at the school. Williams, who was vocal about the problems facing black students, had the backing of the black community but was opposed by a group of mostly white teachers and parents.

One expert says challenges to de facto segregation within schools are not unusual. The NAACP has filed similar complaints against other school systems across the country, said Sherrilyn Ifill, a University of Maryland law professor.

"The issue of internal segregation is one that's been with us almost since the first day of [school] integration," Ifill said. "I think this is actually a very prevalent problem."

But not everyone agrees that black students are treated differently in Anne Arundel. Pamela Bukowski, a white Annapolis mother of six who has been nominated for a seat on the county school board, said her children have never had a teacher whom she believes thought less of other students because of race.

She has publicly questioned the school system's recent efforts to boost black enrollment in Advanced Placement classes. "Putting a student in an AP class when they haven't even had an honors class is really a disservice," Bukowski said.

She said she does not believe teachers purposely exclude certain students from high-level classes. "I have not known the teachers of the more advanced classes ... to say the African-American students just can't do it, so let's not expect it of them," she said.

However, Gregory Neil Brown, a black father of seven who attended the news conference, said he has had to fight over the years to get his children into challenging classes, against the advice of teachers and guidance counselors.

"If you're black in Anne Arundel County, they automatically try to steer your child away from those AP classes," the Annapolis resident said. "This is not hearsay. This is my experience."

Other complainants who attended the news conference at the former all-black Wiley H. Bates High School in Annapolis invoked the landmark May 17, 1954, Supreme Court school desegregation ruling.

"African-Americans were more [academically] prepared then, 50 years ago, than they are today," said Bishop Craig Coates of the Holy Christian Orthodox Church's Annapolis Diocese.

Coates is one of the 25 complainants, including Annapolis Alderwomen Classie G. Hoyle and Cynthia A. Carter; former school board member Carlesa Finney, who stepped down last year; and several parents and black organizations.

Superintendent Eric J. Smith said he did not know that a complaint was coming, but was not entirely surprised.

"The frustration and anger is very apparent," said Smith, who has frequently met with black leaders during his nearly two-year tenure to discuss plans to raise minority student performance. "We do take the complaint very seriously, and look forward to working with these groups."

School board President Paul Rudolph could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Former Annapolis High Principal Williams, now an administrator in the school system's central office, attended the news conference. She received applause after being singled out by one of the complainants.

"If it hadn't been for Deborah Williams coming in and knocking the lid off the pot, we would not be here today," said Alva Sheppard-Johnson, a former guidance counselor who is co-chairwoman of an education committee for RESPECT Inc., a coalition of local black groups.

Finney, who served on the school board for a decade, said she is taking part in the complaint because she does not feel the current school board is taking responsibility for an achievement gap between whites and disadvantaged minorities.

"The board has not made one single presentation about the achievement gap since I've been gone, and [initiatives in the] budget [were] cut that might have kept us moving in the right direction," Finney said in a phone interview. She was referring to the board's decision in February not to seek county funds to expand offerings for students with behavioral problems and for advanced students.

Terressa Brown, a 15-year-old black Annapolis High student who is not related to Gregory Brown, said that she has more praise than complaints about her teachers, but that the sight of nearly all-white Advanced Placement classes bothers her.

"It makes me feel like white people are smarter than minorities, and I don't think that's true," Brown said.

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