Howard's school calendar flap Politically correct?: School superintendent Hickey was right to recall cover photo.


THERE IS LITTLE doubt that the photographer who snapped the cover for the Howard County school system's 1996-97 calendar, and the officials who selected it, meant to send an uplifting message. The intended point of the photo, which is dominated by three wide-eyed, smiling middle-schoolers, is that Howard schools are a good and happy place for children. Unfortunately, the picture also sent an unintended message that was not positive.

The three wide-eyed, smiling children awash in light in the front of the photo are white. Peeking out from the shadows behind them, their faces barely visible, are other children who are not white. The photographer apparently tried to take a picture that reflected the diversity of the Howard County community. But the composition, cropping and lighting of the photo create an image of a school system where minority children are relegated to the background.

The school system's Black Student Achievement Program and others who saw the calendars immediately noticed this impression and objected to Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. He subsequently recalled the calendars, which were to have been distributed when school begins Monday, and plans to reprint them with a new photo at a cost of $5,700. Now some school activists are ridiculing Dr. Hickey, saying he bowed to political correctness -- namely, the avoidance of anything that might offend someone, no matter how innocuous.

But images are not innocuous. Pictures have power. They say something. However inadvertently, this picture says that minority children take a back seat in Howard -- whose system is, ironically, one of the more racially sensitive in the area. Not everyone acknowledges the disparity in this photo. Different backgrounds render folks sensitive to different things. But the

positioning of the children is fairly overt. Those who found it troubling -- and they include whites as well as minorities -- had good reason. Dr. Hickey did the right thing in taking their objections seriously.

Some school board members say they cannot afford to reprint the calendar with another photo. Why can't the school system, at this point, simply distribute calendars without a cover photo? It has never used photos on calendars before. No one would even notice.

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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