A forum called in response to a series of racist social media postings by Howard County high school students grew tense Saturday over what many said were hidden racial inequalities in the diverse community known for the slogan "Choose Civility."
Some parents expressed outrage that the students were not expelled, and demanded the school system do more to punish students for hate speech. Others said there is not enough cultural education going on in schools. Students talked about the need for their classmates to join in open discussions that have been held during lunches and free periods, and that student government leaders said they plan to continue.
Mostly, attendees were calling for action, and not just more talk.
"We talk about how Howard County is so diverse," one Long Reach High School junior told the crowd. "OK, check. We've got that. What's next?"
Nearly 300 parents, students and county residents attended the event called by County Executive Allan Kittleman to launch a campaign he dubbed #OneHoward.
It was the first in a series of forums planned after the election of President-elect Donald Trump sparked concerns over hate speech.
In the days and weeks since, there have been at least three instances in which Howard students posted racially provocative images on social media.
An Atholton student sent an image on Snapchat of herself in blackface with a caption that read, "I'm finally a n——r." It was shared by another student and went viral.
A River Hill student posted a photo of herself holding what appeared to be a gun, with the phrase, "I'm boutta shoot some n——s."
And this week, officials at Oakland Mills High School told parents a 16-year-old student made and shared racist comments on the comedy app I-Funny — behavior they said "is not acceptable and will not be tolerated."
The blackface post sparked an emotional outburst at the event Saturday. County officials played a video in which David Anderson, pastor of Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, interviewed the student who created it. He posted the video on his own Facebook page, where it has been viewed 58,000 times.
"I didn't realize the hurtfulness behind it," the girl tells Anderson in the video. She says she didn't understand what blackface was and was just wearing a chocolate skin mask.
Anderson, who is black, expressed forgiveness and told viewers more open dialogue was needed to resolve such incidents.
But some in the crowd were not pleased.
"You gave a platform to the perpetrator, but not to the victims," one woman said. She identified herself as the mother of a 14-year-old Muslim student in the county. She called celebrations of the county's diversity "a veneer. It's just on the surface."
The mother of an Oakland Mills student said her son begged her not to speak out about the incident there because he feared consequences when he went back to school.
"That is so disheartening," she said.
Howard County schools Superintendent Renee Foose apologized to the woman.
"That is certainly not the type of school system we want to be running here," Foose said.
But in response to parents calling for stronger punishments, Foose said that wasn't the only answer.
"We can suspend students, but we can't eradicate the hate that they're feeling," she said.
Frank Eastham, a former longtime principal at Oakland Mills who is now executive director for school improvement and administration for the county, said the incidents have exposed deeper issues within the community that need to be addressed.
Expulsions are not going to help, he said. "We need to educate people at the same time we're holding them accountable," he said.
School board members said they plan to look into solutions like restorative justice, in which offenders are required to apologize and talk to those they have wronged to find a proper remedy.
Student leaders said they planned to do more to communicate with and educate their classmates.
"We're better than that — or are we?" asked Maryam Elhabashy, a senior at Centennial High School. "We're young, but we're powerful."