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Praise, skepticism greet plan to fight student bias


A smattering of praises as well as criticisms from educators, students, parents and community leaders have followed the county schools' proposal to discipline students who are involved in hate-bias incidents.

The educational and personal rights proposal is an attempt to beef up an existing policy, which condemns hate-bias acts but does not define such acts or provide guidelines for disciplining students.

Roger Jones, chairman of the Howard County Human Rights Commission, is unimpressed with the school's new proposal.

"I don't believe that the school system can police itself, for one thing," he said. "I would change my mind in a minute if there was an oversight committee that was unencumbered, with nothing to gain, to see if they are doing everything possible to escalate human rights awareness in Howard County."

But school officials say the plan provides a framework that was never there before, giving principals clear-cut instructions for disciplining students.

"This is a very far-reaching policy that puts into more specific terms things that have been part of other policies in a general way," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey at Thursday's school board meeting.

Currently, students who make racial slurs are rarely disciplined. Under the proposal, they'll have to bring their parents in for a conference, receive counseling and participate in an educational program. Some could be suspended.

The proposal aims to educate and discipline students who harass, defame, curse, threaten or intimidate other students on the basis of their race, color, religion, physical or mental disability, national origin, gender or sexual orientation.

Supporters say the plan will help deter bias conduct and they praise its educational component. Skeptics complain that it won't change much, saying it still leaves principals with too much discretion.

School officials have given principals much leeway in disciplining their students. Under the proposal, principals will decide whether an incident is hate-related.

"That's what the problem is right now," said Jones. "The principals are deciding. What the entire policy boils downs to is that the same principals will investigate the charges of hate-biased incidents and racism will continue as usual."

Others, however, defended the principals' role in the plan.

"You really have a choice: Are you going to have a big bureaucratic business, or are you going to handle it at the school level?" said Rabbi Martin Siegel of the Columbia Jewish Congregation.

"The principal is the person in charge," said Siegel, a drafting committee member. "He knows the people. He knows the situation."

Parent Evonnie Gbadebo, a black woman whose daughter was sprayed with disinfectant by a white student at Glenwood Middle School, said the proposal should be broader and cover more people.

"I think it should include central administrators, principals, teachers, all the way down to students," she said. "There is insensitivity."

School spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the school system's human resource department plans to develop a similar policy for employees, but she did not have a timetable.

Both Gbadebo and commission chairman Jones question the educational component of the proposal: What does the education comprise? Who's developing it?

"On the surface, that sounds good," Gbadebo said. "But the people who do the training must have the experience to do so."

Under the proposal, the educational program will be coordinated with counseling and with the principal's approval. Caplan said the program will vary with the situation.

School board associate member Jamie Kendrick feels the proposal may be worthless unless schools commit time and programs like they do with drugs and alcohol to educate students on racism. "We need to look at what we can actually do, not just what we can write down," he said.

"My problem with this policy is that it's empty rhetoric to a point," said Kendrick, a Howard High junior. "You're not going to get anywhere with four pieces of paper that say 'This is our policy.' "

Associate Superintendent James R. McGowan said the proposal provides guidelines, and "that to me is not empty rhetoric."

Mount Hebron High School student Kali Murray, who organized a human relations committee to respond to insensitivity and racist attitudes at her school, thinks the proposed policy will deter some students' conduct. But like Kendrick, she thinks more dialogue and programs are needed from central administrators to educate students who hold misconceptions.

"I think the superintendent has to meet with black, Asian, white parents to deal with this," she said. "Parents have a lot of influence on how students react and respect one another."

Meanwhile, the only thing to do is wait and see, said Siegel. "When you deal with these theoretical things, everybody has a point of view. I think it's best to give it a chance to work."

The school board will hold a public hearing on the proposal next month.

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