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Former, current students petition Howard County schools on ‘structural’ racism, call for educational reform

More than 400 former and current Howard County students signed a petition and wrote testimonies that say racism is a problem in the school system. The petition also offered seven steps the system should take to address inequity.

The 100-page petition, which was sent to the Board of Education and school system administrators on June 10, states that the district “has upheld structural and institutional racism,” and features more than 50,000 words of testimony from students who say they have experienced racism in Howard County schools.

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“I think a lot of the time our county is so diverse and people drive around with bumper stickers that say ‘choose civility,’ but that’s not put into practice sometimes in Howard County,” said Victoria Owens, a 2015 Glenelg graduate, who created the petition with input from other graduates. “When racist incidents occur, some people tend to sweep them under the rug and say they’re isolated incidents and aren’t a pattern. But this petition shows it is a pattern.”

When asked whether racism was a problem in the Howard County school system, Superintendent Michael Martirano and Board of Education Chairperson Mavis Ellis both said the same thing: “Absolutely.”

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“It’s a problem in America, as we’ve seen from the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement,” Ellis said. “I was very saddened by the fact that it had to come to a petition, but I was really very happy that somebody had taken the time to put out the issues they had faced as individuals in the Howard County Public School System.”

“My first reaction was that I was very sorry and sad that our students experienced the challenges they presented,” Martirano said. “I was also so proud of our former students who came forward as a way to say they want to work with us and tell their stories as a way for improvement in the future.”

While most of the petitioners were former and current students, some faculty and staff signed on as well. The petition comes amid protests across the country following the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Multiple youth-led protests in support of Black Lives Matter have been held in Howard County, one in Columbia and another in western Howard County.

Martirano said that once he received the petition, he talked with school system leadership to comb through the testimony and discuss the demands. The seven suggested actions in the petition are: teach a Black history course; identify and correct racial bias in hiring; conduct yearly diversity and conflict mediation training; bring on more diversity, equity and inclusion liaisons; provide regular updates on diversity goals; institute an anonymous reporting system for discrimination; and remove the school resource officers, who police the schools.

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“Based upon the testimony, we have miles to go in terms of our education system,” Martirano said. “We have to do everything we can to review our hiring practices, our curriculum and our engagement with our educators with training. We have to always be aware that our brown and Black children in our school system matter. Everyone in our school system is valued. If there is one concern about an individual who has experienced a racial injustice, there is a problem with racism in our district.”

In testimonies, dozens of Black and Asian students wrote that they’ve been called racial slurs, while others cited religious discrimination as well. Some students discussed racial bias in curriculum such as the way Black history is taught, the number of nonwhite authors and the diversity of the school system’s staff.

“Being mixed, I was subject to a lot of different microaggressions at Centennial,” wrote Jessie Link, a 2014 Centennial graduate. “‘You’re basically an Oreo.‘ ‘You look Black but act white.’ ‘Where are you from?’ You name it, I probably heard it.”

“Moved to [Maryland] in 2005, was instantly warned by a social studies teacher to be careful in ‘the jungle.' That’s what the staff and students called the hallway the Black kids hung out in,” wrote Terri Reynolds, a 2008 Mt. Hebron graduate. “This same teacher would go on to tell myself and the class that racism isn’t real and it’s something that [people of color] use as a crutch.”

“My first major concern,” wrote Iftekar Husain, a 2010 Hammond graduate, “was the presence of a police officer in the school who usually followed Black students around and made many of my peers feel targeted and under surveillance in a place that’s supposed to be a learning environment.”

In Owens’ testimony, she wrote that in her 12 years in the school system, she does not think she ever had a Black teacher. Owens, 23, was a student at Glenelg when a classmate brought a Confederate flag to a football game in 2014.

“The next day, a group of students wore various confederate flag apparel during lunch,” wrote Owens, who is white, in her testimony. “To my knowledge, there was no discussion about the implications and history of the Confederate flag.”

“It’s not only that racism exists in one point in time, but those racist incidents have an impact on some individuals for years or for a lifetime,” Ellis said. “People will go back and say, ‘Yeah, I remember when students brought Confederate flags into school or to games.’ That’s ingrained in the memory of many of our students.”

Martirano addressed the petition in his Juneteenth message on June 19, stating the school system’s administrators would work with Kevin Gilbert, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion, to develop a plan to address the “very real concerns” laid out in the petition.

“We need to eliminate any vestige of racism in the Howard County Public School System,” Martirano said. “When we’re wrong, we need to confront it. But the best way to address this is head on with honest, truthful dialogue.”

Ellis said she expects the board to discuss some of these topics in the coming months.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” Ellis said. “But we’ve received a call to action on curriculum, and we can talk about African-American history. We’ve talked about hiring a more diverse workforce. We haven’t been as successful as we’d like to be, but we have to look at the diversity of our staff. We did get three more [diversity, equity and inclusion] staff in this budget, but it can’t end there.”

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