Racial epithet painted at Perry Hall High entrance

Incident follows recall of yearbooks after slur published in apparent prank

June 03, 2004|By Bill McCauley and Sara Neufeld | Bill McCauley and Sara Neufeld,Sun Staff

Someone painted a racial epithet on the sidewalk at one of the entrances to Perry Hall High overnight, one day after school officials began collecting yearbooks so the same word could be removed from one of its pages.

"I think someone just wanted to make some trouble," Charles A. Herndon, the Baltimore County school system's spokesman, said this morning. The perpetrators "may have been goaded" by the incident with the yearbooks, he said.

A school custodian discovered the word and the symbol for anarchy, an A with a circle around it, spray-painted on a side entrance to the school early this morning. The custodian painted over it and called school officials. They had a crew come out and sandblast the offensive word and symbol off the concrete, which they finished about 8:45 a.m.

Few, if any students, saw the epithet and symbol, Herndon said.

Today's incident follows the announcement yesterday that school officials were going to recall about 450 yearbooks that were distributed to Perry Hall seniors after it was discovered that the racial epithet had been inserted next to the name of a biracial student.

The slur appears to have been inserted as a prank, county school officials said. Still, officials plan to send the yearbooks back to the publisher, where the offending page will be removed and replaced. Seniors will get their copies back, so autographs and personal notes will not be lost.

Yesterday, school officials were calling seniors individually and asking them to return their yearbooks, Herndon said. Students who will not return their yearbooks might not be allowed to participate in tomorrow's graduation ceremonies, he said.

Seniors, who are not in school this week, received the books Friday, Herndon said.

The school was distributing the remainder of the 1,300 yearbooks to underclassmen Tuesday when a student saw the slur, on Page 362 of the 400-page book, and pointed it out to an administrator, Herndon said. The books were immediately recalled.

A letter from Principal Brian Gonzalez that was sent home to parents yesterday says the school has identified the student responsible for writing the slur and "taken the strongest disciplinary steps possible."

Gonzalez was out of town and unavailable for comment yesterday. William Lawrence, the administrator who oversees Perry Hall High and other schools in northeastern Baltimore County, gave this account of what happened:

The biracial student and a white friend were in a classroom where the friend gained access to pages to be printed in the yearbook, even though neither boy is a member of the yearbook staff. The friend typed the slur next to the biracial student's name as a joke.

Both boys told school officials that they use the slur commonly between themselves and with another friend who is black.

"It certainly does not appear that this was any kind of a malicious act," Herndon said. "It appears as though this was a very unfortunate and inappropriate prank. ... It was a very thoughtless, very careless, very dumb thing for a student to do, and we don't want to minimize the severity of it. Regardless of how the word was intended, it is a vile word and simply cannot be tolerated."

The student identified as responsible might be required to cover some, if not all, of the estimated $1,100 cost of altering the yearbooks, Herndon said.

Joke or not, some black students at Perry Hall are so hurt that they want to transfer to another school, said David Smith, 16. The junior, who is black, said he often hears white students using the slur and sometimes sees Confederate flags on their book bags and shirts.

Perry Hall's student body is about 10 percent black and 83 percent white.

Lawrence said he generally does not believe there is much racial tension at Perry Hall. He did, however, say the slur is used commonly among white students there and at many other schools he supervises.

"The acceptable language among kids in this generation has changed," he said, attributing the change to hip-hop and rap music. "Kids in social settings now use [the slur] and other words that I would not have ever used."

Originally published June 3, 2004, 9:15 AM EDT

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