Nearly two years after he hung a noose at Crofton Middle School, Conner Prout stood in front of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the NAACP on Saturday afternoon to recount what he’s learned.
“At the time I viewed it as a cheap scare to the students and faculty at Crofton Middle, and I assumed it would be forgotten in a day’s time,” he said. Since then, he said, “I’ve realized the noose wasn’t just a cheap scare. It had truly terrified people.”
His speech and presentation of artwork marked the final event in his court-ordered community service — and the first time, according to one official, that the Anne Arundel County NAACP has participated in a “restorative justice” case. That’s an approach that tries to rehabilitate criminals by providing them opportunities to reconcile with victims and the broader community.
The event also came as Maryland has experienced a spike in reported hate crimes and incidents -- especially in schools.
Prout had pleaded guilty to a hate crime after he and another 19-year-old, John Havermann, hung the noose on May 11, 2017, around 1 a.m.
At the time, the school had a 19 percent African-American and 63 percent white student population. Then-principal Nuria E. Williams, who is black, testified in Havermann’s trial that she felt the school was targeted because of the color of her skin.
Prout spoke Saturday in front of about 50 mostly African-American NAACP members at their monthly meeting at the Kingdom Celebration Center in Odenton. He said that he hung the noose as an image of suicide and that he and Havermann chose Crofton Middle because he had attended school there. He said he regretted not being more aware of the racist implications at the time.
Maryland law enforcement agencies received 398 reports of hate or bias last year, an increase of 35 percent from 2016 — and a pace of more than one report a day. The state’s experience echoes a national increase in reported hate crimes, reversing a long, gradual decline.
Vickie Gipson, an Anne Arundel lawyer who was recently elected as an Anne Arundel Orphans’ Court judge, helped to oversee Prout’s community service over the last year and a half. She said that Prout, like many teenagers, had suicidal ideations at the time but that he should have known how a noose would be seen by people of color.
“The fact that he didn’t speaks to the failure of school system,” she said.
Prout pleaded guilty to harassing/committing a crime upon a person because of that person's race/religion and was sentenced to 18 months’ probation and 120 hours of community service.
Havermann did not take the same plea deal and was convicted of two trespassing charges but found not guilty of the hate crime charges. Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul Harris Jr. said that the prosecutor, Wes Adams, failed to show Havermann acted out of hatred or racist intentions toward African-Americans at the school.
On Saturday, Prout presented three drawings to the group to describe the what he has learned about racism, inequality and the history of the noose. One of them was a black-and-red rendering of an African-American woman that he drew after meeting with Williams and two parents of Crofton Middle children.
“I wanted to portray how African-Americans suffer from hate crimes and of the need to rebuild courage and morale within the African-American community after an event occurs,” he said.
Prout said the “greatest influence” on him was the discussion group Coming to the Table, which he attended on a monthly basis during his community service. “I feel this group taught me the most regarding the current issues of racism and inequality and crucial historical events,” he said.
Coming to the Table is a confidential discussion group where around 20 people of diverse backgrounds talk honestly about subjects like white supremacy and blackface without worrying about being “called out” in public. The gatherings have gained popularity across the nation, including in the Baltimore area, over the last two years.
Prout drew a tree surrounded by symbols representing different aspects of Coming to the Table.
“I wanted circular pattern to represent unity and connection that I feel present at Coming to the Table and a nature theme to show sense of growth and evolution representing my journey.”
After his 15-minute presentation, the group gave Prout a standing ovation.
Gipson said she was proud of Prout. “You really dove in to this and made sure you got the most of it,” she told him. She said his community service was notable in that it was the first restorative justice case that the Anne Arundel County NAACP has taken on. She said she hoped it would not be the last.
New legislation introduced in the state’s General Assembly session could help toward that end. Maryland House Bill 240, sponsored by Baltimore City Del. Sandy Rosenberg, would enable judges to require those convicted of hate crimes to perform community service and attend certain classes as a condition of their release.
Gipson said she believes the community service has “no doubt changed him.”
Jacqueline Allsup, president of the Anne Arundel NAACP, said, “We’ve seen major growth in Conner from the day he started to completion of his community service. The most important part is his honesty in presenting what was going on with him.”
Prout, who said he recalled lynching and nooses “briefly covered” in his school curriculum, thinks what learned in school was “not enough,” and thinks the diversity course is a good idea. “I think it will help a lot of people greatly,” he said.