Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson (File Photo / The Baltimore Sun / December 30, 2002)

A former Anne Arundel County school board member says he'll resign from a school system ethics panel after being censured by the board for comments he made last month, including a reference to then-interim superintendent Mamie Perkins as "Aunt Jemima."

On Wednesday the board moved to censure Eugene Peterson and called for his resignation from the ethics panel. Board vice president Patricia Nalley read a motion criticizing Peterson for "inappropriate and startling" comments and said it "demonstrated his poor judgment and his willingness to employ derogatory and despicable language to describe highly regarded and well respected public officials."

The board voted 6-0 to approve the motion, with board members Andrew Pruski, Kevin Jackson and Ayesha Chaudhry abstaining.

The censure stems from a June 4 meeting in which Perkins, who is African-American, announced plans to reorganize the system's Office of Equity and Human Relations, an office that has been a liaison between the school system and the community on issues related to achievement and discipline gaps for minority students.

She created a new Office of Equity and Accelerated Student Achievement to monitor minority achievement among other duties, and report to the deputy superintendent rather than the superintendent.

Dozens criticized the move, including Peterson, who accused board members of "hiding behind Stepin Fetchit and Aunt Jemima" in proposing the change — references widely regarded as denigrating caricatures for African-Americans.

Peterson, who is also African-American, later acknowledged that his comments referred to Perkins as Aunt Jemima and African-American males in the school system who played a role in the realignment as Stepin Fetchit.

Peterson was not at the board meeting when the motion was read.

He served on the school board from 2002 to 2012 and is in the second of a three-year term on the appointed ethics panel. He said he will resign.

"I don't want to be a distraction. I'm not the issue," he said. "The issue is their inability to put forth any plan or program so far that is credible that the community would believe will eliminate the achievement gap in a reasonable amount of time."

Opponents say the reorganization will undermine transparency in enforcement of a 2005 agreement between the school system and the U.S. Justice Department regarding efforts to address minority achievement. That agreement was struck after civil rights groups and parents filed complaints about the achievement gap, and the board vowed to close the gap by 2012.

Nalley and board president Stacy Korbelak said there is no language in board policy addressing removal of an ethics panel member — though they said the board will consider adding such language. They said the censure is only a verbal reprimand and does not prohibit attendance and participation at board meetings.

Nalley is one of a few current board members who sat on the panel with Peterson and said she took part in the reprimand with mixed emotions.

"It was an extremely difficult decision, but I felt that he should not have ever made those derogatory remarks. We were all offended. I had to get up and leave in tears.

"Many people disagree with us all the time. You disagree respectfully, and you don't attack with racial slurs, and that was racism at its highest," Nalley said.

Peterson said he still intends to take part in board matters. "I care passionately about education, and I believe I will continue to come and speak to the board about the issues I have some expertise on, having served 10 years on the board, and that I care about."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com