As principal of Glenelg High School, David Burton believes it’s his calling to make sure everybody feels a sense of belonging at Howard County’s least diverse high school.
“A reason why I’m here is to build the community as a whole, so I don’t want to not do what I think I’m called to do,” he said in his office on a Tuesday morning. “You can take some hits from time to time.”
Last May, Burton’s calling was put to a the ultimate test.
On May 24, 2018, Glenelg seniors were readying for their awards ceremony on the final day of the school year. It figured to be a celebratory day.
Instead, school officials discovered more than 50 swastikas and homophobic and racist slurs scrawled on the school’s main entrance, the stadium press box, bleachers, sidewalks, picnic tables, parking lots and other locations.
One racist epithet found near the school’s tennis courts was targeted at Burton, who is black.
It was “one of the few times in my life I didn’t know what to do for a minute, so I had to step away,” Burton said. “I had to control my emotions. I’m the principal, I have to do my job but initially I was vulnerable.”
He found himself stuck at the crossroads between principal, father and husband.
On that morning, Burton stepped into his office, took a deep breath and prayed. Then it was time for him to be the principal and act quickly to remove the graffiti before the awards ceremony.
The night of May 23
On May 23, 2018, the Washington Capitals did the unexpected: They advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in two decades after winning the tie-breaking game against the Tampa Bay Lighting on Tampa’s ice.
Nearly 1,000 miles away in Woodbine, a few soon-to-be high school graduates were celebrating the win together. When the game ended, they decided the night wasn’t over. They grabbed cans of spray paint and headed to Glenelg High to carry out what they thought at the time was a “senior prank.”
At approximately 11:30 p.m., wearing masks and hoods to cover their faces, they arrived at the school. However, the next morning school administration would identify the four because their phones had automatically connected to the school’s Wi-Fi network during the time they were defacing the school.
The four, now all 19 years old, were Joshua Shaffer, of Mount Airy; Seth Taylor, of Glenwood; Matthew Lipp, of Woodbine; and Tyler Curtiss, of Brookeville.
Prosecutors said Shaffer drew the racist epithet that targeted Burton.
Prior to the incident, Shaffer was removed from the Senior Class Night after Burton learned Shaffer tried to purchase an alcoholic drink, Burton said in court. Even so, Burton said he “gave him grace” by allowing Shaffer to still attend the senior picnic scheduled for a few days later.
“Even though I had showed him some remorse,” Burton said, “[seeing the graffiti] it was almost like a gut-punch.”
Curtiss, Shaffer and Taylor attended the senior awards ceremony. They were asked to step out by the school’s administration, were read their Miranda Rights, agreed to speak to police and were arrested. Lipp, who did not attend the ceremony, was arrested at his home. They each faced charges related to hate crimes.
During the ceremony, Curtiss had received a scholarship and shook hands with Burton.
The four were indicted in July by the Howard County State’s Attorney's Office. They were sentenced between March and April, all receiving various consecutive weekend jail sentences of a potential three-year sentence to be served at the Howard County Detention Center.
Shaffer received 18 weekends in jail, Lipp received a 16-weekend sentence, Taylor received nine weekends and Curtiss, who spent his 19th birthday behind bars, received eight weekends.
The teens also were each sentenced to fulfill 250 hours of community service to be completed one year from their respective sentencing dates, three years of supervised probation, to submit to any drug and alcohol testing, and to abstain from alcohol, illegal substances and the abuse of prescription drugs.
Attempts to reach the four through their attorneys were not successful.
Rising from ‘the black cloud’
At the Glenwood Branch library during his final spring vacation of high school, 18-year-old Wande Owens recalled his disappointment when he found out which then-Glenelg seniors had participated in the crimes.
Owens, one of the best football players in the school’s history, had been teammates with Lipp, Curtiss and Taylor for three years. He was also friends with them.
A three-season athlete, Owens played football, basketball and participated in track and field with Shaffer.
Owens said if he had to be teammates with them for one more year, while they would have worked together on the field, would have been more distant and “had better judgement on their character.”
“Now they have a stigma associated with them,” Owens said. “Every time you bring up those names, this [the incident] comes up. You Google it, this comes up. So it would have been difficult” to be teammates with them.
“It was one of those things that we [as a community] are trying to say, ‘We are not racist and we do not have this reputation,’ and then blemishes like this make it worse.”
Melissa Montgomery, an assistant state’s attorney, said multiple times in court that the reputation of Glenelg High has been damaged because of the May 23, 2018, incident.
“This is the black cloud that now hangs over Glenelg High School,” she said. “Overcast by this sadness and shock to see their fellow classmates did something so vile.”
Owens, who is black, said Lipp apologized to him at a mutual friend’s graduation party last year. Burton had said in the court that Curtiss, Shaffer and Taylor but not Lipp had extended apologies to him before doing so again in court.
Going into his senior year, Owens, who lives in Cooksville, had already committed to Yale University for next fall, where he will play football and plans to study either mathematics or computer science. But for Owens, there was still something to consider following the incident.
“How is the football program going to bounce back?” he wondered, considering three of four were on the team the previous year.
Owens said the team responded well as Glenelg reached the state championship game for the first time in the school’s history.
Even though the school lost, “the camaraderie we had was one of the best things I’ve ever been part of,”Owens said.
In the hours after the discovery of the graffiti, Burton had the overwhelming support of his student body. Students quickly jumped into gear, asking if they could make a banner to show love for Glenelg and they wrote “GHS ♥ Burton” with cups on one of the school’s fences.
Burton, who was proud of his students’ efforts, said many asked him the same questions.
“‘Why does this happen to us? Why does it make us look this way?’ I kept telling them you’re learning about life, and sometimes people can taint you and you have nothing to do with that, so how do you turn the tide?” Burton recalled.
Nearly five years ago, in September 2014, Glenelg students displayed a Confederate flag at a football game between Glenelg and River Hill. The flag had been temporarily displayed in the back of the stands during the Friday game at River Hill in Clarksville, The Baltimore Sun reported.
There were two reports of hate-related vandalism in 2017 at Glenelg High, according to previous reports. On March 24, 2017, swastikas and racist graffiti were reported to have been found in a school bathroom and, on Oct. 8, 2017, graffiti targeting religion and sexual orientation and racist slurs were found spray-painted on the school’s baseball and softball dugouts.
Sixteen-year-old Becca Bregman only knows of three other Glenelg students who share her religion.
Bregman, who is Jewish, recalled one of her friends who is also Jewish coming up to her in choir the morning of the incident, giving her a hug and asking how she was. They looked at photographs of the graffiti together, but, in the moment, Bregman didn’t really know how she felt.
In the days following the incident, the Glenwood resident said she felt “attacked because there aren't many Jewish students.” She said there would be students who either asked her how she was or would dodge her in the hallways.
Bergman, who participates in varsity cheerleading and the school’s choral program, said she would transfer from Glenelg if she could.
However, the sophomore doesn’t shy away from talking about the incident.
“I say I go to Glenelg and I’m open about it [the crimes] because I feel that people should know about it and that people need to know,” she said.
On the day of the incident, Everett Stimler, 16, was one of the first students to arrive at school, a little before 7 a.m., since his bus picked him up early because he lives far away in Mount Airy. As the bus pulled into the main entrance area, Stimler saw the graffiti of male genitalia first and assumed it was “just a destructive senior prank.”
With a closer look, he realized that was not the case.
That afternoon, Stimler, now a sophomore who runs cross-country, indoor and outdoor track, headed to the state track meet with his teammates. Once at the meet, one of his coaches told all of them to wear T-shirts over their jerseys because students from other schools were “kind of harassing us.”
Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said hat the incident was something he had never seen in his 35-year career as an educator.
“We are not going to tolerate hate in the Howard County Public School System. We’re just not,” Martirano said. “And if you can’t conform with that, maybe you shouldn’t be part of our community.”
Sense of belonging
Glenelg High is farthest west of any school in Howard County. It is also the least diverse out of Howard’s 12 public high schools.
Within the nearly 1,200-student population, 76.2% of students are white, 11.3% are Asian American, while the rest of the students identify as black or African American, Hispanic, native American or others, according to data from the school’s most recent profile.
“We have diversity in a different way,” Burton said. “We … are very diverse as far as social economics. I have kids here whose parents are billionaires all the way to kids that live on farms.”
The schools Burton has led previously were more diverse in terms of race. Burton, who this fall will be in his third year as Glenelg’s principal, was previously the principal of Long Reach High School in Columbia and Parkdale High School in Prince George’s County.
Before the hate crimes, Glenelg was implementing programs to ensure everyone had a sense of belonging at the school, Burton said. However, some of the programs were accelerated afterward.
Burton started a Principal Student Advisory Council this school year to get feedback from students on what it means to them to belong. The council was separated into two groups; one featured sports team captains, those involved in the Student Government Association, and musical arts leaders. The other group, “they can be a little edgy,” Burton said. “These students might not necessarily realize they are leaders for their fellow peers.”
He saw the importance of communicating with both groups, to make connections on all sides. Burton wanted all his students to know that their opinions are valued.
Stimler had been involved in several programs during his sophomore year, including the advisory program.
Participating on the council, he saw changes and believes it can go even further. Burton’s commitment to it has also shown Stimler that his principal is working to put the incident “past us and make changes for the better.”
Stimler also participated in the shadow program between Glenelg and Wilde Lake High School in March. Five Wilde Lake students, who come from a more diverse school, followed around Glenelg students and then it switched. While Stimler could not attend the Wilde Lake day, he enjoyed the experience.
He also took part in One Glenelg Day. There have been three One Glenelg Days so far and it now planned to be an annual event to kick off the beginning of each school year.
The day focused on freshmen learning about diversity, equity and inclusion. While it is only one day, the students will participate in follow-up programs throughout their high school careers.
Burton also worked on a sense of belonging with his staff and fellow principals and administrators whose schools feed into Glenelg.
He began a book study with 34 staff volunteers, where the group read “Waking Up White” by Debby Irving and had very “robust” conversations during the weekly sessions, Burton said.
A point of the book study was to make sure Burton’s staff understood what their non-white students could be feeling in the classroom “and if we make them feel unintentionally ostracized.”
Burton saw a need to connect with all the feeder schools and begin implementing common objectives around belonging. They also began making an effort to attend each other’s events and all principals are invited to the May 30 graduation this year.
Burton said he was meant to come to Glenelg and deal with these kind of situations. He enjoys fixing things but knows this is just the beginning.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “We have a long way to go for everyone to feel belonged.”