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Painful experiences of Black students at Severn School span generations

Severn School Black alumni have spoken up at recent online events detailing racist experiences at the school. Morgan Skinner, a graduate of 2019, has published a letter of her own experiences with racism at the school.
Severn School Black alumni have spoken up at recent online events detailing racist experiences at the school. Morgan Skinner, a graduate of 2019, has published a letter of her own experiences with racism at the school. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

In her junior year, a former Severn Student found out a classmate used a racial slur. The incident was brought to school administration but no punishment or action was taken.

A year later, Morgan Skinner, remembered how she jumped up during a basketball game in response to a referee call. An older white woman behind her yanked at her clothes and yelled at her to sit back down.

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“The overwhelming feeling I felt in that moment was fear — I couldn’t do anything,” she said.

Experiences like that at Severn School left Skinner, now an 18-year-old graduate and rising sophomore at Howard University, feeling upset and isolated.

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In recent Zoom calls with school leadership, Black alumni talked about microaggressions and racist incidents that happened to them.

On Tuesday, Skinner published her experiences in an open letter in which she asked for Doug Lagarde, the head of the school, to step down.

Her letter comes after back and forth with school administration and alumni criticizing the school’s response to systemic racism.

“I’ve had conversations with Doug Lagarde, and it was very clear that he was not interested in what I had to say,” Skinner said. During the online call, she and others said Lagarde called the experiences “accusations” and was dismissive.

In response to request for comments, the school’s Board of Trustees sent a statement and referenced recent actions outlined on the Severn School website.

“Severn School must do more to support students of color, and, particularly, our Black students. We have listened carefully and recognize that we have not done enough.”

So far, the school has committed to actions like hiring a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director, creating a subcommittee for diversity, equity and inclusion, creating a clear and communicative disciplinary process for reporting racist and discriminatory incidents, increasing diversity of student body and increasing racial diversity of the school’s board, administration and faculty.

Lagarde declined to be interviewed.

Skinner’s letter details the experiences and how she felt while at the private school in Severna Park.

“The girl I was coming in as was very different than the woman that I came out as,” Skinner said.

Feeling isolated and tokenized by others was an experience that spanned over years, as it was brought up by other Black alumni. Rena Hicks, a 1990 graduate, recalled school administrators calling her into the office when things went missing or something was vandalized.

“They never straight out accused me but would ask ‘do you know anything about this?' or ‘where were you at this time,‘” Hicks said.

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“You always felt like you were on the edge and that you were walking a tight rope,” she said.

While at Severn School, Hicks noted that some of the incidents were not daily but that classmates or other students would make derogatory comments when around other friends or when no one else was around.

“It wasn’t like every day, it was every once in a while someone would use the N-word and make a racist joke or say something that was inappropriate or nasty and stare at you and wait for your reaction,” Hicks said.

Micaiah Terry, an 18-year-old graduate in 2019, said one of his teachers made a discriminatory comment to him.

“She got suspended for one day and then was right back and teaching me,” Terry said.

Terry and Skinner noticed how often they represented the school at events to encourage younger students to enroll and were tasked with leadership positions.

The dual reality of representing the school and not feeling represented by the school itself was a challenge.

“For me, those Back to School nights were tough because at the end of the day, I had to represent Severn,” Terry, now a student at Lycoming College, said.

“But at the same time, my experience wasn’t great. I had to kind of put on a facade.”

With a school culture called elitist and suppressing by some alumni, they said the school was not supportive of Black students. Instead, they learned how to adapt to their environment and in some ways change their own behavior.

Dennard Melton, a graduate from 1998 and a former athlete, said it was common for Black students to adjust to a white-dominated school.

“You hear all the stories about other kids who just felt like they were marginalized and they were forced to change and become empty vessels to just make it through there,” Melton said.

“There’s no question I felt the same way.”

The pockets of support came through friendships and trusted relationships with faculty. For Hicks, she turned to two teachers who made sure she was comfortable in their classrooms.

“Sometimes I would cry or be upset and angry and they would sit with me and they would always support me.”

Her English teacher would reprimand other students in class during discussions when Hicks would speak up and get laughed at. Her art teacher supported her paintings, even though Hicks joked she was not at all an artist, because he saw her put in the effort and try.

Support also came through family.

Hicks, who sent her daughter to Severn School as well, had parents who told her to work hard and graduate. Her mother, Joan Hicks, became a substitute teacher at the school. Joan Hicks also advocated on behalf of her granddaughter and asked for more Black girls to be enrolled in the school.

“We sat down and talked to all of our children because of what we had to face and what we had to face in daily life,” Joan Hicks said.

“We had the ‘talk.’”

Joan Hicks and her husband encouraged the children to go to college and taught them because of a racist society, they had to be better than average to succeed.

Other trusted relationships with teachers were splintered because of inaction.

After a rivalry game where a white woman grabbed hold of Skinner’s clothing, she said one of her favorite teachers approached her a couple days later to say he saw what happened but did not come over.

“I think about it a lot. At what point do you feel safe as an adult to just be like ‘I am not going to help my student who I see every day and know that she has been struggling with issues like this and she feels very isolated,‘” Skinner asked.

In the moment Skinner said she was afraid and the only person who comforted her was her sister.

Now, Severn School is grappling with its own culture and the proper steps to rectify issues of racism.

“We deeply apologize for the pain and suffering our Black students and alumni have experienced while at Severn. The conversations, while painful to recount and difficult to hear, offer important insight at a time when Severn, and the nation, are in the midst of a racial reckoning,” a letter signed by Lagarde and Board of Trustees Chair Jim Murphy states.

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Skinner is still processing it all but wants the school administration to really focus on the current student body and is tired of the apologies.

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Terry wants future students to feel a sense of pride in the school because for Black students who walk across the stage, they leave the school behind, he said.

“I want students to feel comfortable going to Severn, and I want them to feel proud after they graduated.”

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