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Confronting racial bias at Baltimore’s private schools | COMMENTARY

Students from Bryn Mawr, Gilman and Roland Park Country School march in support of a former Bryn Mawr teacher and Black Lives Matter.
Students from Bryn Mawr, Gilman and Roland Park Country School march in support of a former Bryn Mawr teacher and Black Lives Matter. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Photos displayed on the webpages of some of Baltimore’s private schools paint a picture of racial harmony and multiculturalism, but students marching through the streets this month over perceived mistreatment of a Black former teacher belie that image. On April 16, about 100 students from Bryn Mawr School, Roland Park Country School and Gilman School took up for Adrienne Knight, who resigned from her position as a middle school drama teacher earlier this year after a run-in with a disrespectful white student, which she discussed online in a video posted to YouTube. Ms. Knight said she had asked the student to clean up a mess the girl made gluing a sheet of notebook paper to a desk, and the girl refused, telling her, in racially charged language, to “go fetch” something to do it herself, according to the teacher’s accounting.

It’s unclear how the school addressed the incident. Ms. Knight didn’t say in the video, and the school said it doesn’t discuss such matters publicly. In the eyes of some students and Ms. Knight, whatever officials did wasn’t enough. We applaud the students for using their First Amendment rights to stand up for their beliefs, and hope the schools are paying attention. The incident with the teacher is just the latest example of how some Black students and faculty say they are often marginalized at private schools and forced to put up with microagressions and negative racial attitudes from some students and teachers. Some complain that schools brush aside issues involving race rather than addressing the culture that allows problems to fester. That the incidents keep happening, and students and staff continue to feel discomfort, suggests the schools should take such allegations more seriously and do more to implement deep change.

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Take a look at the “Black at the Tri-Schools” Instagram page to get a sampling of how Black students feel attending the three, predominantly white, private schools in Baltimore that participated in the protest. One student talked about the lack of Black girls in lead theater roles at Bryn Mawr; another said white students ogled the way Black girls wrapped their hair in a scarf before going to bed while on a class retreat. A student at Gilman had to endure students describing Confederate generals as “gods” and joking that a KKK uniform viewed at a museum could become a “skin” for the video game Fortnite.

Alumni say the problems are not new. Last fall, members of the Roland Park Country Network of Black Alumnae published an op-ed in Essence magazine saying that decades of students had experienced “racial trauma” at the institution that battered their self-esteem. At least one graduate said that when she sent her own child to the school she found the same pattern existed. The school issued an apology after the article ran.

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And let’s not forget the 2017 incident when a Boy’s Latin graduate wore, to a party at his college in South Carolina, a racially offensive Halloween costume of an orange jumpsuit with the name Freddie Gray on the back, to depict the young man who died in police custody in 2015. One or more other students from Gilman and Roland Park Country School also reportedly wore orange prison jumpsuits to parties in Baltimore, captured in photos posted on social media.

The very nature of private schools, with their pricey tuitions, sets up a system of elitism and privilege where biases can flourish. They must therefore work that much harder to promote an inclusive culture. The Tri-Schools have made strides, having adopted anti-racism stances and created diversity, equity and inclusion plans, (Bryn Mawr officials said the school also has implemented new systems for reporting bias incidents). Most importantly, the schools have acknowledged their own biased pasts and the feelings of past and current students. Admitting the problem is the first step.

But many more steps need to follow for students and staff of color to feel more included in their school environments. Diversity, equity and inclusion plans are only effective if given the resources and tools to put them in practice. Words are not enough.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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