Do complaints about photos of lynchings, racial brawls and discipline and tracking patterns add up to racism in Anne Arundel County schools? A lot more will be known once the U.S. Department of Education wraps up an investigation prompted by complaints from parents and community groups. They allege that black students are more harshly disciplined, overrepresented in special education and low-level courses and kept out of gifted and talented programs.
Racism is too ugly and divisive a term to be tossed about lightly. Yet a growing body of anecdotal and statistical evidence makes plain the need for a deeper look. The McKenzie report, a study prepared by an outside education consultant last year, found inordinately high numbers of disciplinary actions involving black students, who make up 13.9 percent of the county's student body yet account for 20.7 percent and 18.8 percent of detentions and suspensions, respectively.
Equally troubling are statistics showing that blacks are overrepresented in special education classes -- 28.4 percent -- and underrepresented in gifted and talented programs -- 5.2 percent. Parents also cite racial incidents. Last November, more than 100 students joined in what one administrator called a racially motivated lunchroom fracas and students have complained about graphic photographs of black lynchings on school walls. Perhaps most disturbing, say critics, is a tolerance for such actions on the part of school administrators.
Superintendent Larry L. Lorton is quick to point out that raciaincidents don't necessarily suggest a problem. He's right. Taken individually, the complaints cited by parents and community groups may not be cause for undue alarm. Taken together, however, they suggest that Anne Arundel may be suffering from some of the same attitudes that led to similar allegations of unfairness in the early 1970s. That lead to a discipline code.
This is not a time for denials and defensiveness. Dr. Lorton and other officials have an important role to play and should be open to the possibility of problems, and solutions. Racial intolerance in Maryland is neither non-existent nor confined to any one jurisdiction. The message that Anne Arundel's public school system is a fair and equitable one should be articulated clearly and decisively from the superintendent's office to the classroom.