Students perceive an old bias in news media

September 26, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

The 11 Milford Mill Academy students sat in Principal Nathaniel Gibson's office yesterday to talk about why they donned themselves in black last week to rally for the Jena Six. The teens had quite a bit to say about racism and perceptions of racism in Jena, La.

And they had just as much to say about racism right here in Maryland, too.

No matter how much you may have tried to, there's no way you got through last week without hearing or reading something about the case of the "Jena Six" - a group of black male teens who were originally charged with attempted murder in December after they allegedly knocked unconscious and then kicked and stomped a white student. (The charges were reduced to aggravated battery after cooler heads prevailed.)

The beating was supposedly the culmination of a string of events that featured a "whites only" tree, hung nooses and several interracial fights. There are news stories that claim the supposedly "whites only" tree was not whites only at all, that black and white students congregated there frequently. Those stories also claim Mychal Bell, the only one of the Jena Six convicted so far, had previously been charged several times with battery.

If you didn't hear or read any of that, keep in mind the story of the Jena Six was driven by bloggers, not journalists, whose job it is to ferret out all sides of a story.

Still, there are many who believe the excessive charges filed against the six black youths smell kind of fishy, and that the fish is wearing a Ku Klux Klansman's hood. The Milford students believe it. That's why they gathered at 6:45 in the morning last Thursday to protest not only the racism they saw in Jena, but the racism they see in their own county.

"We've experienced racism," said Eboni Smith, a 16-year-old senior. She named two county schools where, she claims, she's experienced racist incidents while traveling with Milford's band. Eboni mentioned the schools, but I won't, for two reasons.

Gibson, the principal, said the incident at one school was more one of a misunderstanding and miscommunication than of racism. If I mention the other school, I'd have to call to get their side because of that journalism thing. (No reckless, loose-cannon blogging in this column!) Besides, there may be something just as bad as racism afoot when it comes to Milford Mill Academy. And it's not perpetrated by anyone at Baltimore County schools.

It's we, the media, ignoring the good stories about Milford Mill Academy. Whatever we think about the merits of the case of the Jena Six, the fact that over 300 Milford students rallied to support them can only be construed as a positive story. These young people were energized; they were enthusiastic; they wanted to get involved in a cause.

And where were we, exactly?

"I called so many newspapers and news stations and nobody showed up," said Aisha Carr. "But they show up when it's a fight."

Others seated at a table in Gibson's office agreed.

"It's never reported when we do something positive," seconded 16-year-old Sierra Turner, a senior.

"No one wants to try to give Milford a positive outlook," added Kierstin Washington, a 17-year-old senior. Zachary Stokes, also 17 and a senior, said: "We don't get as much support on our positive activities as we should."

Aisha is 15 years old and is in Milford's International Baccalaureate program. The Sun has done five news stories mentioning Milford's IB program. But Aisha and the others wonder why, when this paper reported the droves of black students in Baltimore County who haven't passed the high school assessments, not one mention was made of Milford sophomores enrolled in the IB program.

"What you didn't read is that the IB class of 2010 passed their tests," Aisha said. (The Sun's report focused on Maryland students who graduate in 2009. They are the first class required to pass the High School Assessments in algebra, English, biology and government. The percentages of those in Milford Mill's class of 2009 who passed algebra, English, biology and government were, respectively, 47.2, 41.8, 22.2 and 49.4.)

Torri Hughes, 15, is a member of that IB class. She wasn't bashful about telling me what a poor job she thinks we media types are doing in reporting all the news, not just the bad, that comes out of her school.

"It would be nice if they put in the newspaper how many seniors are getting scholarships and going to college," Torri said.

Some of the students suggested the media's coverage of Milford may smack of a more subtle racism than what went on in Jena.

"I don't really understand why Milford Mill is put down so much," said LaTasha Dunston, a 15-year-old sophomore in the IB program. "Is the whole system racist?"

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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Find Gregory Kane's column archive at baltimoresun.com/kane

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