In the wake of Donald Trump's election, racial tensions in some Howard County schools, including racial epithets and threats circulating social media, have put students, parents and educators on edge.
Days after the election, school administrators were investigating an incident where a white student from Atholton High School in Columbia posted a photo of herself in blackface with a caption that read, "I'm finally a n---er." Another student reposted the image, which was originally shared on an image-sharing app, publicly on social media. In a separate incident, another white student from River Hill High School posted a photo of herself holding what appears to be a handgun and the text, "I'm boutta shoot some n---ers."
School system officials are meeting with parents and students to finalize what disciplinary actions, if any, will be taken, said John White, the school system's spokesman.
At Murray Hill Middle School in North Laurel, staff found "racially insensitive" graffiti written in black marker on a bathroom stall. The graffiti, which White declined to describe because the investigation is ongoing, was removed Friday.
As vitriol intensifies after the contested election, schools nationwide are grappling with how to address the outcome of the election as incidents involving intolerance heighten concerns about student's safety. Local leaders urged the community to maintain tolerance.
The social media incident prompted staff at Atholton to discuss the incident with students and "broaden the dialogue" on Monday, JoAnn Hutchens, the school's principal, wrote in an email to parents. Hutchens said school staff became aware of the post, which she called "racially offensive and hurtful," as students were dismissed on Nov.10.
In a statement, Howard County Schools Superintendent Renee Foose said the "emotional" election was an opportunity for a "teachable moment" to encourage dialogue about the government's checks and balances and what it means to live in a diverse society.
All principals sent messages to their students and staff to encourage "respect, civility and tolerance" following the election, Foose wrote.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican who did not vote for Trump, said this "troubling time" was an opportunity for parents, guardians and educators to talk to youth.
Kittleman urged youth to "seek out trusted adults with whom to speak and who will help them understand why the actions we are seeing in our schools and on social media are not acceptable."
In a similar plea to the community, the five-member Howard County Council wrote that the results of the election "should neither embolden nor justify anyone to attack or threaten another person or group," especially in schools, where these issues "will not be tolerated."
White said the school system's code of conduct outlines possibly disciplinary procedures. According to the code of conduct, the school system can take action against off-campus incidents that have an adverse effect on schools.
But federal courts have not definitely decided how to protect students' constitutional free speech rights in cases where the speech happens outside the school, said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, an offshoot of the Freedom Forum.
The key legal test is whether or not students' speech poses a likelihood of substantial disruption to the education process, Paulson said.
Even when images are shared in more private forums where users grant restricted access, information shared digitally generally does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, Paulson said.
"There's significant risks any time you post anything digitally," he said.
At Howard High School, school staff found a note late last week in the school's gym that read, "I'm going to make Columbine look like a joke."
The school system determined the note posed no threat after investigating with the Howard County Police Department, White said.
Howard High's principal Nick Novak urged the community to send a clear message that "school violence is not something to joke about." The school had heightened police presence late last week.
In an Nov. 11 email to parents, Novak said the note features a statement in memes on social media and compared the incident to clown threats in schools across the country.
"Events like these aim to cause fear and panic," Novak wrote.
Earlier this year, a viral video showing a student denigrating the value of black lives in a school propelled Mount Hebron High School into the national spotlight.
Students staged a walk-out in early February to protest the video of the white teenager engaging in a 30-second tirade, calling blacks the "inferior race."
That experience pushed the school system to launch a committee to work on a diversity and inclusion initiative and bring more student voices into the process, White said.