As Harford County Public Schools officials sought to contain fallout from a racist photograph involving seven Bel Air High School students, community leaders called for more dialogue about this and other issues of racism and of racial, gender, religious or ethnic objectification in the county.
Political leaders, meanwhile, were being put on notice they need to do more to prevent similar incidents, if not in the public school system, over which they have little control, at least in the community at large, and the president of the Harford County Board of Education pledged to address wider issue of racism in the school community.
The furor over the photograph, which a Bel Air High student took in the school library last Wednesday of six fellow students, each wearing a letter on his or her chest spelling out a derogatory word for African Americans, showed little sign of dying down this week.
Although the seven students were disciplined, according to Harford County Public Schools officials, the incident blew up on social media and has caused many county residents who are outspoken on social justice and race issues to demand more attention be paid to them by those in power.
About 25 people showed up at Monday’s bi-monthly meeting of the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners, usually a sedate affair with sparse attendance, to voice their disgust about the Bel Air High incident and to demand more attention be paid to preventing similar ones.
The four town commissioners – Commissioner Patrick Richards was absent – deplored the incident, but said they couldn’t get involved in how the schools are run any more than an average citizen.
“It’s unacceptable behavior among the students,” Mayor Susan Burdette told the group, adding that while she believes school officials handled it appropriately, “We share your concerns.”
Waving a photocopy of the article about the racist photograph posted on www.theaegis.com last week, Scott Businski, a Bel Air resident and member of the Harford County Human Relations Commission, called the Bel Air High incident “an embarrassment,” but one that he said is reflective of Harford County’s history “of not wanting to accept people of color.”
“The question is where do we go from here,” said Businski, who suggested more direct pressure needs to be put on school officials, parents and the community at large, to talk about and diffuse racism and similar incidents of prejudice.
Delane Lewis, founder of the social justice action group Together We Will — Harford County\Upper Chesapeake, also said the community needs to be more aware of the problem of racism and needs leaders “to step up and call it for what it is and hold people accountable.”
Cheryl Adams, mother of a Bel Air High freshman and also active in the local Together We Will group, said when she heard the robocall that went out from Bel Air High principal Gregory Komondor the morning after the incident, “I was offended by what these few kids had done.”
Carlos Taylor, an Abingdon resident, said it is “disheartening to be black in a country where for 400 years we have been hurting … where does it end?”
“We need action,” he said. “What can we do as a family in Harford County to get at the root of this problem?”
They and four other speakers Monday said parents and other adults should not be dismissive of the Bel Air High incident as just kids being kids, saying racist attitudes have to start somewhere, that people aren’t born prejudiced but typically learn to be so from parents or other family members.
“People have to change [their] way of thinking,” said French Poole, a frequent attendee at Bel Air town meetings. “We’re all in this together.”
Town Commission Brendan Hopkins praised those who attended the town meeting and who spoke and said they should “pack” the next meeting of the county Board of Education on Monday night.
“This way, all elected officials will know they need to address this problem,” he said.
After news of the incident was reported by The Aegis, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman used a Martin Luther King Jr. quote in a tweet Friday: “Let’s keep this mind today, ‘darkness can’t drive out darkness, only light can. Hate can’t drive out hate, only love can do that.’”
Glassman, who announced Tuesday he is running for re-election as county executive, said incidents like the one at Bel Air High are “deplorable.”
“To say the least it’s very disappointing and it doesn’t reflect well on Harford County and who we are,” he said following his campaign kickoff.
“Racism has no place in Harford County. We’re better than that,” he said.
The offending photograph was taken during a “Scrabble Day,” part of the high school’s annual Spirit Week during which activities are planned to promote school spirit, Harford County schools’ Manager of Communications Jillian Lader confirmed Tuesday.
“Scrabble Day was designed for students to wear letters that would then be used to spell words that should reflect the spirit of the school,” Lader explained in an email.
Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan and school board President Joseph Voskuhl both issued statements about the incident through Lader Tuesday.
“Discrimination in our schools is not acceptable. It will not be tolerated on any level,” Canavan said. “Mr. Komondor and his administrative team at Bel Air High School have collaborated with Ms. Laurie Namey, Supervisor of Equity and Cultural Proficiency, to dialogue with the students and staff at Bel Air High School on an ongoing basis.”
“This work includes, but will not be limited to school-wide assemblies, one on one discussions with students to ensure individual voices are heard, and working directly with staff to create lessons to increase our appreciation of and respect for all cultures. Our ultimate goal is to advance inclusivity at Bel Air High School,” the superintendent said.
“At this time, we need to give the Bel Air High School community an opportunity to dialogue and begin to heal,” she continued. “This will not happen overnight. During this time, I will continue to fully support Bel Air High School to ensure that open and honest dialogue continues to occur. It is the only way that we can effect change in the schoolhouse.“
“As a former principal of Bel Air High School and the board president, I am shocked by the actions of these students,” Voskuhl said. “Spirit Week is a long-standing high school activity in which a school community comes together to celebrate their school. When a few students decide to spell a derogatory word, take a photograph and share it on social media, it reflects negatively on the school and the entire community.”
“I want to assure the community that conversations are occurring at Bel Air High School with students and staff to ensure that all 1,600 students at Bel Air High have an opportunity to ask questions and share comments as they work towards maintaining a safe and supportive culture,” he said.
Voskul also said that he, Canavan, Komondor and other Harford County schools’ staff will meet next week with Harford NAACP president Zilpha Smith “to discuss community concerns.”
Aegis staff member Erika Butler contributed to this report.