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An uneasy pomp and circumstance Yearbook racism taints graduation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GREENWICH, Conn. -- High school graduation finally arrived here, with the standard caps and gowns and "Pomp and Circumstance" -- as well as the less traditional police K-9 patrols and reporters asking questions about racism.

Tuesday evening's Greenwich High School commencement was not quite like any that came before. But life has been different in Greenwich, the most genteel of the towns on Connecticut's Gold Coast, for the last week -- since school officials found that five high school seniors had encoded a racist message under their photos in the class yearbook.

This ugliness in a high school graduating class that boasts 40 students commended in the National Merit Scholarship program, in a school that held special programs earlier this year to celebrate Diversity Week. And this in Greenwich, where some of the country's richest people make their homes.

If there is such a thing as a media spotlight, then Greenwich has been squinting in the glare all week. Reporters parked at the high school and did interviews outside the tony shops on Greenwich Avenue.

The reaction to the yearbook slur was swift: All five seniors were suspended, denied the right to take finals and therefore ineligible for graduation. They will be spending the summer in a sensitivity program devised by Congress of Racial Equality head Roy Innis, visiting homeless shelters and middle-class neighborhoods. Their photos were removed from the reprinted yearbook pages offered to students.

Eventually, they may be allowed to take final exams and thus qualify for diplomas. Meanwhile, the police are investigating possible violations of Connecticut's hate-crime law.

The episode left Greenwich residents angry and distressed. But many said no one should be surprised.

Behind the town's wealth and elegance, Greenwich knows it is no better than any other place in America when it comes to matters of race.

"There's a thin veneer," said First Selectman John Margenot, "and we're not above fracturing it at any time. It can happen anyplace."

"Nobody's immune," said school Superintendent John A. Whritner.

"The undercurrent in Greenwich, Conn., is as bigoted as in Baltimore, Md.," said George Twine, former president of the local chapter of the NAACP and a 1937 graduate of Greenwich High School.

The five seniors' coded message probably would never have been found had the boys not bragged about it, students say. The last letters of the captions in their yearbook pictures, when pieced together, spell out: "Kill all niggers."

Students horrified

The yearbook captions are, by tradition, an elaborate, cryptic jumble of quotations, best friends' initials and thank you's. The quotation under one of the accused seniors' photos, for instance, is, "Heaven doesn't want me, and hell is afraid I'm gonna take over." It ends with, "I love ya 4ever Kris 5/19/93 kill."

The other four captions include similar sentiments and finish the sentence: The last letters are "ALL," "ni," "gg" and "ERS."

Last week, as final exams began, the news spread across the campus.

Students said they were horrified. Some black students "were hollering and screaming and crying," said Alexandra Taborda, a junior. "I'd never seen anything like that." She is Hispanic. "I took it as if it had happened to me."

Bill Vecchiolla, who graduated Tuesday night, said everyone took the incident seriously. "You can play a joke on someone and they'll forgive you," he said. "But not like this. You can't forgive this."

'A bias crime'

The five accused students quickly found lawyers. None of the boys or their families made public statements. The police said none of the five had taken any responsibility.

"They have been punished a great deal," school spokeswoman Joan Giles said yesterday, after Mr. Innis came to Greenwich to announce the program he would begin for the five students. "Their families are suffering. Their parents, where can they go without people looking down on them? That's what's happening."

But Mr. Twine of the NAACP said the case must be pursued by police. "This is a bias crime," he said. "This is a criminal offense. And unless it's treated as such, we're going to have many, many more."

On the day after the yearbook message was discovered, Greenwich High students signed petitions deploring "an unacceptable act of intolerance." Teachers took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper to send the same message.

And as the school reacted, the camera crews began to arrive.

This is a sophisticated town of 58,000, used to media attention. Movie stars and heads of the country's biggest corporations live here, in gracious homes set back on sloping lawns.

George Bush grew up here. Glenn Close's ancestors were among the town's founders. Ron Howard and Diana Ross bought homes in town. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young graduated from Greenwich High.

Media attention

But despite its affluent image, the town has 800 public housing apartments. And while the black population is holding steady at about 2 percent, the numbers of Hispanics, now 4.4 percent of the population, and Asians, 3.5 percent, are growing.

Many residents remind visitors of the town's diversity, in which they say they take pride.

But after a few days, the media attention began to wear.

Security guards began escorting reporters off the school campus. Graduation guests watched skeptically as reporters did interviews.

"It's disgusting," one woman muttered as she walked by a knot of reporters gathered at one end of the football field for the ceremonies.

But Mr. Twine called the attention "wonderful. It's a sign America is coming of age."

Mr. Margenot agreed that Greenwich must confront the problem. "There's a message to everybody here. You have to be alert to this. Families -- mothers and fathers -- have to be examples that are beyond reproach -- and aunts and uncles as well. This was an act of stupidity. It's something that damaged everybody."

"Certainly there is extreme wealth here," Superintendent Whritner said. "But there are also people of goodwill. We have the resources, and hopefully we can solve these problems in my lifetime."

"Kidding themselves"

Daniel Hickman, who is black and a 1958 Greenwich High graduate, said that residents "want to think there are no problems here. They're kidding themselves."

His son was among the 501 seniors who graduated Tuesday night. "My son was very friendly with one of the kids" involved in the yearbook incident and was shocked when the news surfaced. "It's racism, and it hurts," said Mr. Hickman, a retired Greenwich police officer.

Ms. Taborda, the high school junior, said she knows that some people in Greenwich want the story to go away. "In Greenwich, everything should be quiet," she said. "It's all hush-hush. That's how we're supposed to handle it."

Indeed, the incident was mentioned only briefly at the commencement ceremonies.

Class President Kerry O'Connor took the microphone to say she and her classmates felt "shock and disgust" when they learned of the slur in the yearbook.

And commencement speaker Charles R. Lee, chairman of GTE Corp., said he had watched students interviewed on television in the last few days and "I've seen the sadness and hurt on your faces."

There was a sixth Greenwich High senior missing from the ceremonies. Abaigeal Van Deerlin, a National Merit Scholar, was arrested before dawn on graduation day.

She and a teen-ager from suburban New York were caught painting on a rock that would be visible during the graduation ceremonies. She told police they wanted to write "a positive message" to counter the damage done in the yearbook.

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