Arundel schools plan to study acts of bias

Group that filed complaint seeks to build support

August 22, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County school officials plan to better document discriminatory acts as community leaders try to build support among parents concerned about inequities within the schools.

Starting this academic year, school staff will submit reports about incidents that may be motivated by bias based on religion, disability, sexual orientation, race or nationality, so district officials can track where and when they occur.

The new procedure grew out of the revision of the student code of conduct approved this year, said schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

"Quite often we find ourselves as a district responding to the specific -- to that one incident," Smith said. However, "we know it's not just a situation in isolation."

Meanwhile, members of the Community Education Committee -- an umbrella group representing those who recently filed a federal civil rights complaint against Smith and the school board -- plan to encourage people to find ways to address issues facing minority students.

"Many people see the situations that they're dealing with as isolated to their own personal experience," said committee member and former school board member Carlesa R. Finney. "They don't necessarily see it as a pattern of disparity."

In the May civil rights complaint, clergy and community activists alleged systemic discrimination against African-American students in areas such as discipline and course placement.

School officials are considering mediation to resolve the complaint; those who signed the complaint already have agreed to that option, said Carl O. Snowden, aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens and local community activist.

The school system has begun to address some issues of harassment through revisions to the student code of conduct, said Jose M. Torres, assistant superintendent for student support services.

A countywide survey conducted last year also showed that harassment might be pervasive, he said. Many students responded that they had experienced harassment.

Also, half the 11th-graders who responded said that there is tension between racial or ethnic groups at their schools.

Torres said the need to track incidents became clear after repeated instances of racist graffiti at South River High School during the spring last year. Although the school system has an anti-harassment policy, there was no process to accurately record the number and nature of these incidents, Torres said.

School officials created the system using procedures developed by anti-bias groups the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Materials detailing the reporting process are now part of a principals' manual that addresses discipline, crisis management, drug and alcohol policies and legal issues.

"They'll have it right by their desk," Torres said.

In the guide, staff members are instructed to be vigilant for "signs of bias" including symbols and logos associated with white supremacist groups. Responses differ for incidents characterized as minor -- racist language or offensive clothing, for example -- and major ones, which involve property damage or violence prompted by bias. Graffiti, for example, should be covered up so no one else is exposed to it, the guide states.

After an incident, staff members must fill out a report detailing the race of the people involved and type of bias, as well as the type of incident, such as slurs, harassment, physical assault or cross burning. The staff also must list the action taken and what assistance is needed to prevent further incidents.

Some leaders of the African-American community said they are pleased that the schools will be recording and categorizing incidents, although they believe the system should try training or other methods to address the problem itself.

"Let's get at the root cause and fix the root cause. Then you don't have to worry about tracking or counting," said John Wilson, executive director of RESPECT Inc., a coalition of African-American organizations in Anne Arundel County.

Wilson and other members of the Community Education Committee will meet with residents in areas such as Fort Meade, Glen Burnie, South County and Annapolis to inform them about the academic and disciplinary disparities described in the complaint, such as the disproportionate number of blacks suspended and expelled. Also on the agenda are the implications of the federal No Child Left Behind Act as well as the minority achievement gap and differences in suspensions and expulsions.

One possibility is training parents as ombudsmen so they can help themselves and others navigate the school system.

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