An 'endemic toxin' in Baltimore's private schools

The other morning, as I drove my 11-year-old son to his Baltimore private school — where he is one of a schoolhouse-full of mostly white, fortunate children — the car ride conversation wasn’t about the World Series’ Game 6. Rather it focused on the latest iteration of Baltimore’s racial divide: students connected to city private schools dressed in offensive Halloween costumes.

The Sun reported that one Boy’s Latin graduate wore a Freddie Gray costume — an orange jumpsuit with the name of the black young man who died in police custody in 2015 taped to the back — to a party at his college in South Carolina. One or more Gilman and Roland Park Country School students reportedly wore orange prison jumpsuits to one or more Baltimore-based parties. The photos were re-posted on social media with captions reportedly derived from rap songs, including one that read “[N-word] broke out.”

Who is more culpable in this: the students, their parents, or the schools’ leadership?

In Barry Levinson’s “Liberty Heights” which took on the anti-Semitism and racism of Baltimore in the 1950s, Jewish teens inspect a sign affixed to a public swimming pool that reads, “No Jews, dogs or colored.” Against this backdrop, there is a scene in which the rebellious and misguided Jewish teenager prepares to go to a Halloween party sporting a Hitler costume. Parents and grandparents are there to redirect the errant teen. The grandmother exclaims, “The boy, he’s a lunatic.” The mother chimes in, “Have you lost your mind? ... You are not leaving this house dressed as Adolf Hitler.” Still clueless, immune from anything outside that which affects him, the teen replies, “What are you talking about? It’s Halloween.” The mother calls the father who demands, “Put the Fuhrer on the phone.” The net result: the teenager took off the costume.

Maybe the teen depicted inLiberty Heights” didn’t fully appreciate the costume’s social ramifications; likewise, perhaps (we can hope) the Baltimore teens failed to also. However, in the movie, not just one parent, but two — and a grandparent — intervened to deter and thus teach in no uncertain terms.

In real Baltimore, we have at least one parent of a misguided teen defending the child’s choice: “The kids were just having fun at a Halloween party,” the parent told The Sun.

A parent condones this as “fun”? How is it “fun” to express yourself at the expense of young men whose lives are so drastically different from these private school teens’? How can we condone teens costuming themselves in prison garb while teenagers exactly their age, not born into anywhere near their level of privilege, languish in our jails and prisons wearing the same “costume”?

One person’s fun is another’s anguish.

The private schools have likewise missed the point. Out of one side of their mouths, Gilman and RPCS administrators eschew their students’ conduct, commendably expressing “disappointment” and clarifying that the conduct “express[es] values and beliefs that run counter to the kind of community we seek to build … the character of young men we strive to educate.” However, out of the other side, they emphasize in a disgraceful attempt at mitigation, that the photos “were taken at separate functions over the weekend and combined in a social media post.”

Do I understand? The schools think that because these costumes were worn at different parties that the conduct is less offensive? Multiple instances of despicable, isolated behavior, educators argue, is a defense? Isn’t it more of a threat that these Halloween costumes bubbled to the surface from different parties, in different states, worn and annotated by different students — each of whom hails from a Baltimore private school?

The common thread of indifference is an aggravator, not a mitigator.

We sent our first three children to Baltimore public schools because the elementary and middle schools offered a rich math and science program through “Ingenuity,” and Baltimore City College offered a strong International Baccalaureate program; our house percolated with children of different races, national origins, religions and economic circumstances, and our children’s now adult lives and professional paths are profoundly marked by these riches. However, our youngest is in private school — often we feel against our better judgment — in large part because the city’s elementary Ingenuity program was eradicated. While he thrives, I worry daily about the potential corrupting effect of social elitism. When I read articles about private school student behavior devoid of an appreciation for their own community, my stomach turns, as I have one foot in both worlds.

Baltimore private schools, parents, students — a group of which I am a now a part: We have an endemic toxin in our midst. Don’t litigate, parse and warp the facts. Like Barry Levinson’s characters: Be blunt, and perhaps we will stop the madness.

Kathryn Frey-Balter (kfreybalter@gmail.com) is an attorney and adjunct law professor, and the parent of four children, three of them Baltimore City Public School graduates.

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