Letter sent home last Friday by LHS Principal Maureen Montgomery
The racial incidents that occurred last week at Leonardtown High School (LHS) were on the minds of the people who spoke at the St., Mary’s County Board of Education meeting Wednesday. And they were very much on the mind of School Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano.
In his first public statement since the incidents last Wednesday and Thursday, Martirano said he was “most concerned.” He said, “I hope we continue to work with our young people in a very proactive way. I never want it to happen again in St. Mary’s County.”
The superintendent detailed the chain of events that started with a Dr. James Forrest Career and Technology Center student bringing into Leonardtown High School a rope he had used in a fire service class. The rope was braided. The student gave the rope to another student when he went into a bathroom. That student apparently held up the rope at the top of steps leading to the second floor with a group of African American students below. Then a third student took the rope, unbraided it, and held it up as if it were a noose. A black student came up the steps, snatched the rope and threw it to the ground below. The student who originally brought the rope to school took it to the office, surrendered it and told what happened. There was a verbal but not physical altercation. The incident was captured on video tape.
The incident occurred close to school closing on Wednesday. An investigation began and students and parents were contacted that school would begin as normal the next day. On Thursday morning before class an unrelated fight broke out in the hallway. That fight, the superintendent said, was no racially motivated.
Later in the morning a fight broke out in a classroom between a white student and a black student that was apparently an extension of the incident the day before.
As the result of the incidents, three students involved in the Wednesday racially motivated incident were suspended. Four students involved in the unrelated incident Thursday morning were suspended. The two students involved in the classroom fight were also suspended. Martirano would not reveal the length of the suspensions due to privacy issues, but he said the suspensions could lead to hearings and further actions against the students.
The three incidents caused rumors to fly and student Facebook and Twitter accounts were buzzing on Thursday. The school system developed a plan to implement on Friday, including LHS Principal Maureen Montgomery talking to students. A letter was sent home with students at the end of the day on Friday. See a copy of the letter above this story.
“The social media are killing us,” Martirano said, adding the “racism is still very much alive.” But the superintendent insisted, “All of our students must feel safe and secure.”
During the public comment section a number of NAACP members spoke, including President Wayne Scriber. He said, “This despicable act demands no less than condemnation,” noting that the school board members had not reacted to the incident, and did not during the meeting. “It was extremely offensive and insensitive act.” He concluded: “Hate crimes are continuing to happen in St. Mary’s County.”
Florence Lanham of Ridge, an octogenarian and long-time county community leader, put things into perspective. She said when she was five years old an incident she experienced at a general store led her mother to tell her that her uncle had been hanged. When she heard about the LHS incident, “That’s the first thing that came to my mind,” she said.
Janice Walthour, NAACP education committee chairperson and retired principal, said, “The concern is we continue to move forward and solve the problem by working together.” She asked who in the school system is working with the parents “who are perpetuating this.” And she wondered who a teacher would talk to if they discovered.
Walthour suggested that the system hire a diversity expert to deal with the problem and suggested the incident was symptomatic of the lack of black teachers and role models in the school system.
Several parents of students at Leonardtown High School spoke. One parent, whose son was directly involved, said, “In his eyes it was very offensive and very harmful.” She said her son is still dealing with the effects.
Another parent said her daughter had reported to her racial incidents prior to the incidents last week, and those incidents were reported to the school board. “I think the students should apologize to the community. I would like to see sensitivity training stronger than bullying.”
In his statement Martirano touted the upcoming .one-act drama “don’t u luv me,” that will be performed for 9th and 10th graders in the three high schools on March 13-15 and then at a community showing on March 15 at 6 p.m. at Leonardtown High School. That program, performed by the College of Southern Maryland Cause Theater and originally presented last year at the La Plata campus, is aimed specifically at bullying but also under the more general topic of “Building Positive and Healthy relationships.”
Bob Morehouse of California, a farmer and NAACP member, said, “I am sickened it took place. It robs all of us and is unacceptable. Not in my country!” He said the superintendent was showing good leadership, but “We need to hold everybody accountable, not just the students.” Morehouse noted a recent statement by a judge that he called racist and also noted the school board’s silence on that. “If the school board made no comment then silence is consent.”
The school board does have a policy of not commenting on anything said during the public comment section of their agenda.
Martirano, during a prepared statement, said, “All students need to feel safe, free of prejudice and any form of hatred,” but added he needed the help of the community to achieve that.
Ironically before the public comment section the school board received a briefing on a large number of African American History Month events this year in the school system.