Hate crimes don't take a holiday Racial epithet, swastika are found over past weekend; 'Doesn't make sense'; Campaign announced to fight such cases of vandalism


Howard County racked up two more hate incidents over the holiday weekend when a racial epithet was spray-painted on a sign at River Hill High School and a swastika was smeared in chocolate on a home in Columbia's Kings Contrivance village.

The two incidents come as the Howard County police and nine organizations and businesses, including the Rouse Co., the county schools and the Columbia Association, announced a campaign yesterday to crack down on vandalism and graffiti.

The goal of the campaign is to display posters in schools, buildings and parks depicting graffiti as a crime. Rewards will be offered for reports of in-progress acts of vandalism or for information about defaced areas, said Sgt. Steven Keller, police spokesman. The new drive against vandalism is not directly connected to last weekend's incidents.

Although the most notable recent hate crime report -- that a North Laurel townhouse was vandalized and defaced with racial slurs -- was determined to be a hoax, community leaders reacted yesterday to the two apparently unrelated weekend incidents, which brought the county's total hate crimes so far this year to 59, police said.

That number already is close to the total number of hate crimes reported to police during each of the past two years: 64 in 1995 and 66 in 1994.

Jenkins Odoms, president of the Howard County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attributed the increasing number of crimes to the national political climate.

"I see it coming from the Contract for America. Certain of our elected officials, they have given out the wrong message, that you can discriminate," Odoms said. People "feel like they can go out and express their racism."

Jim Henson, administrator of the county's Human Rights Office, said it's difficult to know what spurs some people to hate-bias crimes. "Some of it is 'kids will be kids.' Some of it borders on hate and ignorance," he said. "Mischievousness. Hate. Ignorance."

At River Hill, students deplored the incident in which someone spray-painted "n- - - - -" on the school's sign along Route 108 sometime Friday or Saturday. "It's awful," said sophomore Sarah Berson, 15. "I thought [race relations] were fine, but now I'm not so sure."

Likewise in Kings Contrivance, neighbors of the Sherman family -- whose home in the 7600 block of Sweet Hours Way had a swastika smeared in chocolate on the window of the garage early Sunday -- expressed dismay that such hate is present in Columbia, which prides itself on racial harmony.

Scott Perl, 44, a neighbor of the Shermans, said: "This is a small, close-knit neighborhood, and it's shocking to hear about a hate incident like this happening. We're all the same kind of people, with the same level of income; we've got the standard number of kids, cars and dogs.

"We're a cookie-cutter, middle- class community," he said. "It doesn't make sense that a heinous crime like this would happen here."

Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah, a congregation in the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, where the Shermans are members, said, "We don't have a lot of these things."

He added: "It's very upsetting. When something like this occurs, you have a sense of being attacked and violated, and feeling so vulnerable."

Mitch Sherman, 47, whose house was vandalized, said he and his wife were awakened by noise during the night, but didn't find the swastika smeared on their garage window until later that morning.

"It seems like it was some teen-agers with nothing better to do on a Saturday night tinkering with my house, but nonetheless it doesn't change the message the symbol sent out," Sherman said. "It makes me feel disappointed to know that someone would stoop that low.

"It's not that somebody was just passing by and decided to deface our house, but they must have known we were Jewish and thought it out to put a swastika on our house."

Sherman said a Snickers candy bar wrapper was found under the garage window. Four to five white teen-agers were reported running and laughing from the garage, police said.

Pearl Seidman, 43, who lives in the neighborhood, said: "To know that someone at any age has that much anger and hatred against people to vent and do such anti-Semitic acts is a nasty thing to do "

It was the third time this year that a swastika has defaced a building in Howard County. The last incident was in January when a swastika was drawn on the front door of Burleigh Manor Middle School. In February, someone apparently made a swastika by walking in the snow in the front lawn of a home in Columbia's Long Reach village.

Meanwhile, at River Hill yesterday, the 6-foot-tall blue and yellow sign still bore scars from the graffiti, because custodians had to scratch off some of the blue paint to remove the epithet.

Few students knew of the graffiti, because no announcement had been made during the school day, but they said they were disappointed by the vandalism. Students interviewed said race relations at River Hill seem smoother so far this year than at other schools in the county.

"Things seem pretty good here. Everyone is getting along at the new school," said sophomore Matt Antonishak, 15. "This is a pretty foolish thing for someone to do."

Like many schools in the county, River Hill already has been attacked by vandals this year, including an incident when an obscenity was painted on an outer wall just before the first day of school and other markings were made inside bathrooms, students said. The school system reported 452 vandalism and 86 graffiti incidents during the 1994-95 school year, costing $61,641 to repair and clean up.

The River Hill administration made announcements in the first week informing students about those incidents and warning them to keep the school free of graffiti, but no announcement was made yesterday.

But police officials say graffiti at schools often comes from teen-agers who target their home schools or rival schools. That is why the new anti-graffiti program is targeted at stopping teens. Posters have been displayed in areas where they hang out.

The program aims to curtail vandalism and graffiti incidents, which have shown a steady increase in recent years.

In 1990, there were about 3,100, compared with a high of 3,500 in 1994. The number of incidents dropped to almost 3,300 in 1995, but so far this year, 1,106 incidents of vandalism and graffiti have been reported to police.

"People see kids standing outside a building holding two spray cans and they don't call the police," Keller said. "There's a likelihood that we'll be able to stop the vandals rather than use taxpayer money to clean up. We want to let people know that no matter how pretty the colors are to paint, graffiti is not an art, it's a crime."

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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