Activists call for school equity

System accused of biases against black students

Discrimination claim filed

Smith says he understands community's frustration

Disparity seen as systemic problem in Arundel schools

Anne Arundel

May 24, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

When Eric J. Smith became superintendent of the Anne Arundel County school system in 2002, African-American leaders and parents had reason to welcome him.

One of Smith's first community meetings was at a black church in Annapolis, where he spoke of eliminating academic disparities between black and white students.

But last week - less than two years after that initial meeting - a group of parents and the local branch of the NAACP filed a federal discrimination claim against Smith and the school board, alleging that black students are discriminated against in schools.

The reasons for the action extend beyond Smith and have roots in the county's racial dynamics, participants in the complaint said.

In this school year alone, a black high school principal was ousted after she clashed with a group of mostly white teachers and parents; the school board has become less racially diverse; and data released by the school system shows African-American students performing poorly.

According to interviews with black leaders and parents, these events have reinforced a long-held perception that minority students are treated unfairly in Arundel schools.

Many of the complainants feel, for example, that too many black students are funneled into special education and low-level classes.

"My experience is that there are teachers who try to encourage [black] children to do better," said Irma Holland, an African-American mother of two Annapolis High School students. "But there are a great number of teachers who are very apathetic."

Holland is one of two dozen people - including two Annapolis alderwomen and a former county school board member - who joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in lodging the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

They allege that black students' disciplinary problems and poor academic performance are the result of a system biased against them. They want the government to require the school system, as it did a decade ago, to adopt measures to avoid racial inequities.

This school year has been marked by a number of grievances:

Deborah Williams, a new principal who was outspoken about the need to restore black students' faith in school, was transferred from racially mixed Annapolis High after a group of mostly white teachers and parents campaigned for her removal. Smith initially defended her, but later said she had lost control of her staff.

A black school board member, Anthony Spencer is stepping down - the second to do so in two years. If the appointed successor is white, the racial makeup will shift to seven whites and one black, from five whites and three blacks in 2002.

Smith watched the school board cut funding for most of his initiatives. A few months later, Smith announced that he was interviewing for a job in Florida. (He was turned down.)

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. cut a $1-million-a-year grant that pays for extra teachers and services at Annapolis schools, some of which are majority-black. (After receiving fervent appeals, the General Assembly restored about half of the grant in next year's budget.)

School system data recently made public confirmed that blacks, who make up one-fifth of the county's student population, are more often suspended or expelled, more likely to drop out and less often enrolled in high-level classes than whites.

Little clout

The way some black leaders see it, they had nowhere to turn but to the federal government.

In a county where 14 percent of the population is black, African-Americans have little political clout, according to civil rights activist Carl O. Snowden and others. There are no blacks on the County Council or in the local legislative delegation.

So last week, when the country was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation ruling, the complainants held a news conference to denounce what they consider another kind of segregation.

The Office for Civil Rights, which oversees schools' compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws, confirmed Friday that it had received the complaint against Anne Arundel.

Out of about 5,000 complaints it receives each year, the office usually finds cause to take on more than half of the cases, said Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the office. An investigation could include interviews, data collection and analysis, and site visits.

The complaint came as a surprise to school officials.

Since Smith's arrival, many of the school system's initiatives have been designed to put minority and poor children on an even footing with other students.

"I thought we had made already great strides toward what they're asking for," said school board President Paul Rudolph. "It's a disappointment, because I thought we were all working together."

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