High school students forged common ground in a leadership conference yesterday that ended with 300 teen-agers holding hands in a circle and singing "Lean on Me."
The 1997 Multicultural Leadership Conference, coordinated by Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, drew students from Carroll County high schools and Bowling Brook Preparatory School in Middleburg.
They leaned on teachers and members of the citizens group for guidance, but quickly became discussion leaders who could draw their own conclusions.
The day began with a skit filled with stereotyping and divisive language. Midway through, the two characters apologized and began a new conversation. Students split into smaller groups and continued the dialogue. Many maintained racism is not a simple black-white issue.
Elizabeth Jones, a South Carroll High School junior who is black, said, "We tend to forget that everybody is a victim of racism."
"Racial diversity goes much deeper than just the skin," said Jen Michael, an Asian-American student at Francis Scott Key High ++ School.
Students from different schools joined discussion groups, and the dynamics varied from table to table. Some groups meshed well, with lively discussion among strangers. Others were more subdued.
Brandon Frisby, a senior at Bowling Brook, a residential school licensed by the Department of Juvenile Services that stresses education as rehabilitation, said the program has taught him to redirect his anger.
When asked what causes racism, Brandon, who is black, answered immediately: the uneducated.
"I would hear the 'n' word and it would make me angry," Brandon said. "Now, I walk away, because I know people who say that are not going to listen to what I have to say."
In one group, each participant wrote anonymously of a personal racial incident. Some were startling: A white student in a black neighborhood was mistaken for a narcotics police officer and threatened with a gun. A baby sitter for three black children described their dismay when a white mother pulled their playmates away from them at a community playground.
Separatism extends beyond race and gender, as evidenced in their own cafeterias.
"In my school [cafeteria], you have a freak section, a redneck section, a jock section and an ethnic section," said Chris Duvall, a white senior at South Carroll High School.
But the school's few black students don't sit only in the "ethnic" section, he said. If they're jocks, they sit with the jocks but never with the "rednecks."
Erin Ness, a white senior at Francis Scott Key High School, described her cafeteria as divided into "rednecks, skaters, farmers and jocks" but said she has friends in each group.
She has noticed, however, that extracurricular events draw every group together. On "ag days," when students bring in farm animals and displays, everyone seems to get interested and the barriers break down, she said.
"We should plan more events like ag days," Erin said, or like the African dance performance that students at Westminster enjoyed. "Everyone has a great time without realizing what group they're in."
Students watched a segment taped from ABC's "Primetime Live," in which a hidden camera followed a white man and a black man. The camera revealed overt differences in the way each man was treated by salespeople, landlords and employers.
Three white students from North Carroll said they encountered peer prejudice against their counterculture, alternative interests. They rewrote a scene from the "Primetime Live" segment that had a suspicious salesperson following a black man in a record store. The reworked scene showed prejudice against a pagan who listens to gothic rock music and dresses in its dark, nihilistic style.
"A 'goth' Wicca gets trailed, but a Christian doesn't," said Devon Bonning, a 10th-grader at North Carroll High School who has unofficially changed his name to AQ, pronounced "ahk." When asked whether the students at school call him Devon or AQ, he answered, "They don't call me."
Each school chose conference participants in a different way, but many started with members of the multicultural clubs. Nichelle Patterson and Yvette Walker, two Westminster High School seniors, said they and other multicultural club members had first crack at participating. Then they recruited other students in person. Yvette said she chose "the most outspoken."
Virginia Harrison, an Eldersburg dressmaker and human rights advocate who is director of the citizens group, promised the students at the outset that they were in for a day of work.
"You think you have a day off school?" Harrison said. "Not today."
Harrison was so eager to have everyone participate that she "even invited the bus drivers because I thought this was so important." Several bus drivers accepted her invitation.
"Open your minds and hearts to think intelligently," she said. "Something you learn today may affect the rest of your lives. You are our future. It is going to be your world."
After lunch, students from Bowling Brook entertained the crowd with a skit based on a football team that learns the value of teamwork. Their physical comedy drew the audience's laughter, and their dialogue elicited applause. Their skit ended with a poem, written by senior Eugene Jones.
No matter what color we are
) When we become one we can
stand with pride.
-! So let us join hands and come
face to face,
.' And let's give a hand for this
stranger in a common place.
When the Bowling Brook students began to sing "Lean on Me," their school theme song, all 300 students joined in.
Pub Date: 5/08/97