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Northeast student-athletes create initiative to end hate, racism in Pasadena

Northeast senior Trent McNeill (10), seen shooting over Wilde Lake's Kyjuan Adams (1) during a 3A state quarterfinal game in March, said, "The older people that live around Pasadena, they’ll still come to the basketball games and they’ll support. But they still feel the way they do."
Northeast senior Trent McNeill (10), seen shooting over Wilde Lake's Kyjuan Adams (1) during a 3A state quarterfinal game in March, said, "The older people that live around Pasadena, they’ll still come to the basketball games and they’ll support. But they still feel the way they do." (Paul W. Gillespie)

Trent McNeill sees the good in his Pasadena community, like when Northeast High rallied around his basketball team’s success last winter.

But he also sees the bad, often inflicted on him because of his Black skin.

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As he’s grown to understand the place he’s grown up in, the Northeast senior still felt surprise when hundreds of people — his community — came out to protest in support of Black lives last summer.

When that happened, a spark flared inside McNeill, as it did his classmates on the Northeast Captains Club. They could enact change from their school halls outward if they tried.

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The Northeast Captains Club, the athletic leadership council made up of coach-selected student-athletes, focus on different issues each year. Ending racism is just one aspect of the council’s overarching mission this year, and they hope to start an end to hate in all its forms.

“The kids created this. That’s the great thing about the kids within our school building,” said Jesse Reiger, one of the teachers who supervises the leadership council and an assistant football coach for the Noretheast Eagles. “They are the leaders. They’re the ones who come up with these ideas, and we just hear them as adults.”

The group ordered T-shirts, yard signs and wrist bands baring the slogan “create change and end hate,” and a hashtag, “soar together.” Reiger said one idea is to restyle the county schools’ “Unity Day” at Northeast for this purpose. Another is to reach out to community businesses to see if they’ll put up the slogan, too.

The members of the athletic leadership council record themselves reading a book to send to students at five feeder elementary schools and George Fox Middle to watch as part of the Northeast reading program, now in its seventh year. The program builds relationships between the high school athletes and younger kids, so that in the near future, the older students can teach about hate facing their community and the world.

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“It feels good to be somebody local that can actually reach out to if they needed to, to be there and show them that we can get through this because we’re all together and united,” McNeill said.

Though Pasadena is not the only community with calls to address and tackle hate, its ZIP Code, 21122, had the most hate bias incidents reported across Maryland in 2018. A new report from Maryland State Police in October showed Pasadena had between 12 and 19 hate crime incidents in 2019, still the highest of any area in Anne Arundel County.

Knowing that motivated Northeast athletic director Ken Miller as well as his students, they said.

“We wanted to show that we the students of Northeast don’t stand for that. We want to change the narrative,” said senior Caroline Gilliard, a four-year varsity lacrosse player. “We realized athletics is a great way that our county communicates with one another, and this is a great way we can show athletics support and get it out to not only high schoolers but younger kids that look up to us.”

McNeill has experienced the effects of living as a minority in a white town for longer. Sometimes, while he attended George Fox Middle, people called the police on him — just for standing outside.

“Especially being that young, not even knowing what the issue was, not really knowing that people would think a way about you because of how you look” hurt McNeill.

The Northeast boys basketball team drove to the state semifinal last March before the pandemic canceled the tournament. For each of those playoff games, passionate Northeast fans packed the seats. McNeill hoped that when the predominantly Black basketball team started winning, it might alter the hearts of some in his community.

“But I feel like in reality, I don’t think it did,” McNeill said. “The older people that live around Pasadena, they’ll still come to the basketball games and they’ll support. But they still feel the way they do.”

When junior three-sport athlete Megan Meek graduated from Old Mill Middle to Northeast High, she said she saw a difference from the diversity at her old community to the majority white population of her new one. She noticed division.

With this initiative, Meek hopes to bridge that divide anyway.

“I hope that our classmates can really take the opportunity to understand where everyone is coming from at the issue,” Meek said, “so that they can see that there is a problem and there needs to be change to include the other members of the community and use their privilege to a [positive] advantage.”

The Captains Club presented their ideas and the issues to county coordinator of athletics Clayton Culp, who “got to see their enthusiasm and what was motivating them,” Miller said.

“My excitement comes from the kids,” Miller said,” and the fact that they’re pushing this.”

Miller also conducted a meeting with Culp and student member of the county Board of Education Drake Smith, during which a “racism in athletics” forum was created, reminiscent of one in 2020. It’s scheduled for Feb. 4.

The students drew excitement from the support the adults showed them, too.

“I feel like we’re definitely moving in the right direction with the athletic department and everybody backing us up,” McNeill said, “because there were a lot of incidents that got swept under the rug. Now, I feel like it’s all coming to the light and change can start to happen.”

The group understands the possibility of pushback associated with a progressive movement. In February 2019, flyers protesting a diversity course approved by the Board of Education were sent to parents of incoming South River ninth-graders. Currently, Miller hasn’t heard of anything from his own student body’s parents.

The students know there will be those who reject their ideas. Meek and Gilliard hope education can help change their fellow white classmates’ ideologies and wipe out ignorance.

“We want to kind of fill the gaps of what these people are missing and show this is how a good community works together and this is how a good community functions and what we’re doing right now is not working and obviously needs to change,” Gilliard said.

As a Black student, McNeill would hope even a face-to-face conversation could help an individual get to know him.

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“I know [change is] not gonna happen with me being in school,” McNeill said, “but that’s why we’re just trying to start it and get it out to these younger kids, so they can carry it on and so the change can keep happening.”

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