After Bel Air High photo, community challenges school officials on racism

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Community members urged Harford County Public Schools officials Monday night to take steps — beyond what’s been done in response to a racist incident at Bel Air High School earlier this month — to tackle what they call ongoing discrimination and harassment of African American students.

“It is troubling that Harford County students and communities have been subjected to this racist act, and we do not feel that appropriate action has been taken,” JoWanda Strickland-Lucas, of Voices for Racial Change, said.

The Facebook page for Voices for Racial Change states they are an organization that “will provide a forum for diverse communities to address the cultural dynamics of systemic racism, bias and disparity through authentic dialog, education and training.”

Strickland-Lucas was one of more than 20 people who spoke during the public comment of Monday night’s Harford County School Board meeting. They were responding to an incident Oct. 3 during Bel Air High School’s Spirit Week, when six students participating in “Scrabble Day” used letters attached to their shirts to spell out a racial slur. Another student took a photo of the group, which was then circulated on social media.

Two Bel Air students, who are African American, said during the school board meeting that other incidents of racial discrimination and harassment similar to what happened on Scrabble Day have taken place at Bel Air and other Harford County schools.

“As a result of this incident I do not feel safe,” Jenea Seaberry, a sophomore, said. “I feel like I could be targeted at any time.”

“This picture just put a magnifying glass on the situation,” said Seaberry, referring to an increase in racist incidents in schools nationwide.

Her classmate, sophomore Morgan Williams, said she saw the photo on Snapchat, “where the kids were smiling as if this was some kind of joke.”

“I wanted to say, ‘I couldn’t believe this was my school,’ but deep down inside I knew something like this was coming,” Williams said.

She said the Bel Air High community should be aware of the problem and come together to let all voices be heard.

“There is no such thing as too much conversation, especially on a topic like this,” Williams said.

The school system reported on Oct. 12 that all seven students have been disciplined although school spokeswoman Jillian Lader declined to give specifics citing school system student confidentiality policies.

On Monday night, school board members denounced all racist behavior.

“We as members of the board are very disappointed in what took place at Bel Air High School and this type of behavior will not be tolerated in Harford County Public Schools,” board President Joseph Voskuhl, a former Bel Air High principal, said.

He stressed school officials are prohibited by state and federal law from discussing how the seven students were disciplined — some speakers called for stricter punishments while others advised a “restorative” approach so the perpetrators understand the gravity of their actions.

“I can assure you that we are working diligently to make sure that everyone that was affected by this incident at Bel Air High School is touched, and touched with a soft voice but in some cases a hard hand,” Harford County schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan said.

Canavan characterized the incident as a challenge to the Harford County Public Schools community.

“One thing that I believe in is that God sends us things in very, very unusual ways,” she said. “Instead of sending David to Goliath, He sent Goliath to David to see what David could do. I think right now each one of us is a David.”

Laurie Namey, the school system’s supervisor of equity and cultural proficiency, has been coordinating a strategy in response to the incident, working with Bel Air High students, administrators, faculty and staff, and the community to find solutions.

Namey said a school-wide assembly was held Oct. 16, during which students were encouraged to ponder ngs they could do to make changes that could be made to quell racist activity. They were also asked to write suggestions on notecards handed out at the assembly about handling issues at a systemic level. Bel Air High has more than 1,500 students, according to the school system website.

The majority of students did write responses and “the information that we received is going to drive our moves forward,” Namey said during Monday’s meeting.

One idea from student leaders was to form a diversity club, which could be a forum for smaller-scale discussions about racial discrimination and “marginalization of other underserved groups of individuals” in the school system, Namey said.

“We cannot accept this [incident] on behalf of our children, and we must be relentless as we continue to move forward,” Namey said.

Speakers said they appreciated the steps taken by Namey and her staff, but they stressed the Bel Air High incident is not new.

“We are here to tell you that this is much deeper and broader than one incident and one school,” Delane Lewis, of Together We Will-Harford County Upper Chesapeake, said.

According to its website, Together We Will is “an inclusive and diverse group of neighbors creating a just community that empowers individuals to participate in our democracy. We will reach out, speak out and step out whenever democracy is marginalized or jeopardized. We fight for social justice and a place where all can thrive.”

A few speakers called for voting out all nine school board members in next year’s election. Six members are elected from councilmanic districts and the remaining three are appointed by the governor. A student representative is the 10th board member.

“I find this outrageous behavior totally unacceptable,” Cassandra Beverley, a former school board member, said.

Beverley, who is African American, was elected to the board in 2010 and served until 2015. She said in the past, including during her time on the school board, she has heard about “hateful and racist incidents.”

“I could not come forward at that time but this is the time, this is definitely the time,” she said.

Beverley and other speakers encouraged school officials to employ “restorative practices,” through which offenders work to heal the harm they have committed, rather than face punitive actions such as suspension or expulsion.

Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, the teachers union, called the students’ actions “repugnant” but said, “they’re children and their failure is our failure — all of our failure.”

Several Bel Air Police officers were on hand Monday, including Chief Charles Moore. The school board meets in the Harford County schools headquarters in downtown Bel Air, and there are usually one to two town officers on duty.

Police wanted to ensure people could “speak their piece in accordance with the First Amendment” in a safe environment, Moore said.

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