Dozens of students, faculty and parents of the Gilman and Roland Park Country schools held a rally against racism Tuesday morning in North Baltimore, after photos on social media portrayed area private school students and graduates wearing racially insensitive Halloween costumes.
The organizers, Sabrina Johnson, Ashlee Tuck and Sydnee Wilson Ruff, African-American members of the Roland Park Country School alumnae board, said they wanted to stand against racial ignorance and highlight administrators’ efforts to foster a more inclusive, racially sensitive atmosphere.
“Racism exists everywhere,” Ruff said. “This is not a reflection of what this community is about. This is an inclusive community. We stand together, and when things like this happen, we band together to turn the situation around for good.”
A photo of a pair of students from Roland Park and Gilman wearing orange prison jumpsuits at a party was posted online, with a racial slur inserted, by a student at Mount St. Joseph High School, the schools’ officials confirmed. The same weekend, a Boys’ Latin School graduate was photographed at a separate party wearing a prison jumpsuit with “Freddie Gray” written on the back.
Gray, 25, died of injuries sustained in police custody in April 2015, prompting protests against police brutality followed by rioting on the day of his funeral.
Private school students from the Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia areas will attend the 2017 Student Diversity Leadership Conference at Glenelg Country School on Saturday, where they’ll hear from poet Theo E. J. Wilson and former NAACP president and Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, said Kaliq Simms, former diversity director at Roland Park Country and Park schools.
Simms said the costumes were the latest example of high school students testing — and overstepping — the boundaries of what’s appropriate.
“It also shows how social media can take that and re-victimize and further exploit minorities,” she said.
Her son, Hunter Simms, 10, a fifth-grader at the Cambridge School in Pikesville, said: “It’s really good we still have people acknowledging there is real racism in the world. We want to make the world a better place.”
Roland Park Country has invited speakers to talk to students about diversity and inclusion, Ruff said.
“Roland Park Country School is taking concrete steps to make sure our community is healed and is moving forward in the right direction,” she said. “It’s not just talk. We’re not just holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.’ We’re taking real actual steps that’ll help us get to a different, and hopefully a better, place.”
Lindsay Wilson, 27, another Roland Park Country alumna, said she was upset when she saw posts saying, “This is what they’re teaching in private schools,” along with photos of the offensive costumes.
“We don’t accept this,” Wilson said. “We don’t approve.”
Wilson said the prison costumes and epithets accompanying them online were “surprising, but not surprising.” Racial ignorance is a culture that starts at home, she said, and school officials are working to change it.
Kristen Tubman, community and global programs coordinator at Boys’ Latin, said the faculty there is committed to helping students understand why the costumes caused such outrage and trying to create a more accepting community.
“We’re deeply troubled by it, and we’re working hard to support students at our schools and educate,” she said. “It’s a team effort. We all really do care.”
Verna Mayo, head of the middle school at Roland Park Country, called racism “an insidious creature” that has deep roots.
“Racism is so inherent in our society, and I support anything that strikes out against that insidious creature,” Mayo said. “It’s such a part of our fabric, and it shouldn’t be.”
The rally showed that the schools are “infused with community,” said Caroline Blatti, head of the Roland Park Country upper school.
“We definitely stand against racism and support this cause,” Blatti said.
Mark Fetting, president-elect of Gilman’s board of trustees, said the school’s student body is about 30 percent minority, which he said was one of the highest proportions among the area’s private schools.
The Halloween costumes, he said, served as “a catalyst to come together seeking race equity and deploring racism.”
“It’s tough stuff, and at Gilman we’ve got to catch up,” Fetting said. “As institutions where we have the benefits of considerable resources and facilities, with that comes a responsibility to lead.”
In a statement, a Gilman spokeswoman called Tuesday’s rally “a positive community-building event.”
“Our tri-school community, Gilman School, Roland Park Country School and The Bryn Mawr School, stands firmly against racism, bigotry, and other forms of hurtful and discriminatory expression,” the statement said.
Tuck, one of the organizers, said she didn't want the rally to be the end of the conversation.
“We want to keep the conversation going,” she said. “We don’t want this swept under the rug. We want to make this issue something at the forefront that all schools have to address.”