School board hopeful makes race an issue Former Carroll teacher says bias unaddressed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Thelma P. Smith spent one year teaching in the Carroll County school system. She does not have many fond memories of the experience.

As a teacher at Francis Scott Key High School, Smith says she endured continual racial harassment from administrators, teachers, parents and students because she was the school's only African-American teacher.

The discriminatory treatment, Smith says, resulted in unfair and negative teaching evaluations, caused her to become clinically depressed and ultimately led to her dismissal as a teacher in December.

It also convinced her to seek a seat on the county Board of Education.

A highly charged topic

In Carroll, where 3 percent of the population is black and occasional racial incidents involving the Ku Klux Klan and the display of Confederate flags are reported, race is a highly charged topic.

Smith is leading a small group of blacks in Carroll who are working to revive the county's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that disbanded five years ago because of lack of interest.

"After spending a year in the system, I know it is a racist, hostile environment for minorities, but they [county school officials] don't want to confront it," said Smith, 41, of Eldersburg. "As a minority, I was totally ignored, totally dismissed as an individual."

Smith -- who filed a discrimination complaint in August against the Carroll County school system with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- says she could bring a minority perspective to the school board. That complaint is under investigation.

"To me, the board represents exclusivity," said Smith, who is teaching part time at Baltimore City Community College. "They may have females there, but there is no ethnic representation."

Smith's charges come at a time when Carroll school officials are trying to recruit more minority teachers and address the concerns of minority students.

This year, school recruiters made more trips to predominantly black colleges. Minority teachers make up about 1 percent of the staff in county public schools.

Next school year, school officials plan to establish a mentor program for minority students and work closely with churches to encourage their young black members to pursue teaching careers.

A personnel matter

School officials declined to comment on Smith's charges or her campaign for a school board seat, saying her case is a personnel matter.

But the written record from the school board's Jan. 14 decision, relating to her dismissal, disputes Smith's allegations of unfair treatment.

The board upheld her supervisors' findings that she did not create a positive teaching environment, and supported Superintendent Brian L. Lockard's recommendation for her dismissal.

"It is unfortunate that Ms. Smith is of the opinion that nearly any circumstance in which she had a disagreement with another person is the consequence of racial bias towards her," the board wrote.

"Ms. Smith always presented an explanation in which bias or animosity was attributed to the other person in an attempt to excuse her own inappropriate statements or judgment," it continued.

Smith, who is appealing her dismissal to the State Board of Education, maintains that the county board refuses to acknowledge the existence of racial problems within the Carroll County school system.

"Despite the history that exists in terms of slavery, the board didn't know what I was talking about -- racial slurs, condescending behavior from colleagues," Smith said. "They were afraid to say black, race, prejudice or discrimination -- it was like they were above all that."

Smith had sought a job in the Carroll County school system for five years before being hired as a business education teacher in July 1996. A resident of Carroll County for seven years, she was impressed by the academic success of county schools and hoped to work her way up to an administrative position.

She was assigned to teach keyboarding and computer literacy at the school near Uniontown.

'Backwoods behavior'

From the start, Smith says, she encountered "backwoods behavior and hostility." She describes a school where racism was pervasive and administrators repeatedly ignored or minimized her complaints about disrespectful students and parents.

Among the incidents cited by Smith:

Each time she entered the school cafeteria for lunch, a certain cafeteria worker walked away from the serving line but returned to serve white teachers.

A student shoved her in a crowded school hallway, almost knocking her to the floor and aggravating a back injury. After the student was returned to class, she says, she complained to school administrators that he hadn't been disciplined properly. The student was suspended for the rest of the day after Smith mentioned filing assault charges against him with the police, she says.

A student gave her a "discipline referral" form, used to document student infractions. The form cited Smith for a "class disruption" because she "ate chicken that was from KFC without a chicken eating permit," she says. The student explained the incident as a joke and was suspended from school for a day, she says.

"The condescending, discriminatory way they treated me had nothing to do with anything other than the fact that I was an African-American and female," Smith said. "I firmly believe that if I were a white teacher, with the credentials I had, I would not have had the problems I had."

According to Smith, the most serious example of the school system's discriminatory attitude toward her was the way her teaching evaluations were handled.

Last school year, Smith's supervisors observed her seven times in the classroom, and each time gave her an "effective" rating. But Smith received an overall "needs improvement" ranking on her first- and second-semester evaluations, which are based in part on the seven classroom observations.

In its written decision on Smith's appeal of her evaluations, also issued Jan. 14, the board cited testimony from Smith's %o supervisors that other factors were considered in her overall evaluation.

Clashes and outbursts

Supervisors criticized Smith's disciplinary procedures, saying she humiliated and berated some students in front of the class. They also noted repeated clashes with students and parents, and instances of angry outbursts with colleagues.

"As principal of Francis Scott Key High School, [George Phillips] spent considerable time on a daily basis dealing with parent and student complaints about Ms. Smith's classroom climate," the board wrote.

In a written response to Smith's appeal of her evaluations, Assistant Superintendent Gary Dunkleberger cites statements

Smith made in class that resulted in parent complaints.

They include Smith's comment to students that "life is a bitch and then you die, so make the best of it," and her remark during a disagreement with a student that "I need to bring my sons here to speak to you."

Dunkleberger also wrote that 47 of Smith's students asked to be removed from her class, and 38 of those requests were granted.

Smith acknowledges making the comments cited by Dunkleberger but says they were misconstrued by parents who objected to an African-American teaching their children.

"Anything I said was taken as a threat," Smith said. "I was always the culprit."

Smith maintains that school administrators reduced her full-time teaching position to part time last May as "punishment" for her outspokenness and complaints she had made throughout the year.

But in Dunkleberger's written response to Smith's evaluations appeal, he notes that the decision to reduce her position to part time related to the low enrollment in business courses for the 1997-1998 school year.

In August, Smith returned to Francis Scott Key High for an in-service session for teachers shortly before students arrived. During the session, Smith exchanged words with another teacher. Thereafter, she did not return to the school.

Smith says the incident with the teacher was another in a string of painful experiences at Francis Scott Key.

In October, Lockard recommended to the board that she be dismissed for unreported absences and her failure to prepare substitute lesson plans during those absences.

Smith says her absences were caused by clinical depression.

"I wasn't feeling well because I had been diagnosed with major depression as a result of being in the environment that I had been in," Smith said. "I was just tired of being treated badly, and I knew that people weren't going to act any differently."

Smith says she informed a school administrator last summer that she was suffering from depression because of her difficulties at the school. She also says she wrote a letter to Lockard in August informing him that she was ill but didn't specify the nature of the problem.

'They didn't care'

"I didn't hear from anybody," Smith said. "They didn't care enough to ask what was wrong with me."

In its written decision on Smith's appeal, the school board wrote that she did not give school officials a reason for her absence until her hearing in December.

"It strains credulity and reasonableness that a teacher would wait until the day of the dismissal hearing to offer a major medical condition as a reason for her failures," the board wrote.

At the December hearing, the board upheld superintendent Lockard's recommendation to dismiss Smith.

She has sued the school board for her unemployment insurance benefits.

Smith maintains that other African-American teachers in Carroll schools have had experiences similar to hers but haven't complained out of fear for their jobs. She says her presence on the school board would help change that.

"They've been taught that you don't say anything," Smith said. "And if you don't tolerate it, you're the one that's not doing something right."

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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