School plan aims to curb bias acts

Goal is to train students, staff and reduce incidents by 15%

Middle school pupils had most violations

July 22, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County middle school pupils committed the majority of discriminatory acts - mostly uttering racial slurs or threats - that were reported under a procedure instituted during the last school year.

County school system officials created the process for administrators to inform them about "bias-motivated" behavior - defined as offenses inspired by a negative attitude or opinion against a group of people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation.

Now the school system is developing a response plan aimed at reducing the number of incidents by 15 percent while continuing to train students and staff.

School systems usually are not required to track these data, but Jose M. Torres, the county's assistant superintendent of student support services, said counting events will help them determine if racism or other discrimination is a problem.

"We wanted to have a systemic process of making reports," he said.

The procedure also calls for administrators to report what actions they have taken to punish perpetrators as well as to prevent further harm - for example, by removing graffiti.

The student Code of Conduct spells out consequences ranging from letters of apology to five-to-10-day suspensions for more serious or repeated offenses. By reporting about the action taken, school system officials also hope to ensure that schools are applying the code consistently.

During the last school year, pupils at 16 middle schools and one alternative school committed 123 acts, according to a summary compiled by the school system. By comparison, 77 incidents were reported among all 12 traditional high schools, one career technology center and an alternative education site. At 20 county elementary schools, 37 acts were reported.

Pupils - predominantly boys, when a perpetrator could be identified - were using racist language in most incidents, according to the report. One-third of middle school acts referred to sexual orientation.

Torres said the need to track incidents became clear after repeated instances of racist graffiti at South River High School in 2003. Black parents at Southern High School complained in 2000 about racial slurs directed at their children, and administrators responded by setting strict rules of student conduct and involving parents and religious leaders.

But the sporadic nature of these reports may have been a problem. "It might have left the false impression that these were isolated incidents, or those schools had more problems than other schools," said Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights activist and an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Also, more seventh- and 11th-graders surveyed last spring agreed that racial and ethnic tension was a problem within their schools than the previous year - 56 percent compared with 47 percent in 2004. However, more of those students said they believed that schools were adequately addressing such problems.

Racial tensions rose last year as six young white men were charged with manslaughter in the July 2004 death of Noah Jamahl Jones, a black Northeast High School student who died after a brawl outside a Pasadena party. A jury acquitted one of the men and prosecutors subsequently dropped charges against the others.

In another case, prosecutors last month appealed a Juvenile Court master's acquittal of a black student of assault and hate crime allegations stemming from the alleged beating of a white student at Meade High School. Prosecutors criticized the principal for not identifying two witnesses until ordered to do so.

More and more school districts nationwide are collecting harassment data, said Steve Wessler, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence at the University of Southern Maine. The group creates bias prevention programs for schools and school systems.

Harassment has a great impact on schools and students' academic performance, he added. Simply, "it's just harder to concentrate if you're anxious and scared," Wessler said.

He praised the school system for undertaking this endeavor because it shows the entire school community that such behavior will not be tolerated. However, Wessler expressed caution about the accuracy of such systems. "What's going to be reported in a school is going to be far less than what occurs," he said.

High numbers of incidents reported at some schools - 22 offenses at Chesapeake Bay Middle School, for example - may mean the school is following the procedure, he said. On the other hand, the amount of time required to investigate a potential offense motivated by hate could discourage school staff from punishing them, he added.

Wessler said his organization often discovers during focus groups with children that "there are often problems that the administration just isn't aware of."

Torres said schools would not be penalized for large numbers of reports. He added that some variation among schools in reporting might stem from some school administrators being reluctant to suspend students.

Also, it may be unclear whether an incident is in fact motivated by hate or bias. For example, if two students of the same race refer to each other using common slurs, should they be punished?

The Sullivan County, Tenn. school district tried to determine intent and impact after it began recording harassment incidents more than two years ago as mandated by a consent decree, said supervisor Janie Barnes.

She said officials were warned that their numbers would increase when they first began because staffers "are going to pay more attention to what's happening."

Adults must discourage the routine use of degrading language, Wessler stressed. Otherwise, he said, a pattern of escalation could develop, where slurs sprinkled into speech evolve into threats and later violence.

But students must also be vigilant.

"Most harassment takes place outside of the eyesight or the hearing of adults," Wessler said.

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