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Tough Questions

African American parents ask why white parents weren't invited to informational meeting.

Many unanswered questions linger three months after a fight at Winston Churchill High School sparked a controversy and shed light on racial tension at the school:

Does racial tension exist between the school’s students or is it between students and the school’s administration? Does the school do enough to ensure the success of all of its students regardless of their race or ethnicity? Is racial tension at the school real or has it been blown out of proportion by the media?

Answering these and many other like questions will be the task of Study Circles, a national mediation program that has been modified for educational settings and embraced by Montgomery County Public Schools. The program will be used at Churchill in the coming weeks and months.

“This is an opportunity for us to be very, very open with each other,” said Ruby Rubens, one of the coordinators of Study Circles. Rubens and John Landesman coordinate the program for the school system, and introduced it to members of the Churchill community at an informational meeting at the school on Wednesday, March 28.

Study Circles is the latest step that Churchill has taken to address concerns raised after principal Joan Benz sent a letter to parents following the January fight describing the incident as an example of “black on black violence.”

Parents, school administrators and activists criticized that letter. The emotional response revealed racial tension at the school that many said dates to the school’s opening in 1964, four years after the county’s schools fully integrated.

The program is designed to pull students and parents of all races and ethnicities together to discuss racial and ethnic barriers within the school. The groups are scheduled to meet six times beginning in mid-April and will conclude in May by creating action plans that will create specific strategies to address racial and ethnic barriers within the school.

Fifteen participants will sit facing one another in a circle and the discussions will be prompted and facilitated by school officials.

The initial meetings of the groups will be designed to build trust and dialogue among the group’s members, said Rubens, and will culminate in the development of action plans.

“It may be necessary to talk about some uncomfortable things, but it [is important] to get it all out on the table and work towards a resolution,” said Landesman.

WHILE THE PROGRAM is intended to foster dialogue between parents and students of all races, 24 of the 29 people who attended Wednesday’s meeting were black; the other five were white.

Only parents of black students and members of the PTA’s executive board were invited to the meeting, Benz said.

Several of those at the meeting expressed concern about the racial makeup of Wednesday’s group.

“How can you legitimately solve the issue if you don’t include the white parents?,” asked one woman. “The majority of the people here are African American; it seems kind of one-sided.”

Landesman and Rubens promised that they would reach out to the community to find white parents and students to participate in the groups.

Wednesday’s meeting shed light on the issues that will define the program’s work. Landesman and Rubens facilitated two informal groups at the meeting and began with a question that they said will be the springboard for the first substantive meeting.

Benz said that the work of the Study Circles program will supplement that of the Churchill Advisory Committee. Like Study Circles, the committee was created to explore ways to address racial tensions within the school and will create recommendations for doing so by the end of May. Benz said that the committee is made up of Churchill parents, faculty, administrators and school administrators. School officials have declined to specifically identify anyone on the committee other than co-chairs Benz and Dr. Lori Christina-Webb, an MCPS deputy superintendent.

Rubens and Benz both said that the recommendations from the Study Circles groups will be independent of those made by the Churchill Advisory Committee, though they are likely to share similarities. While the two groups operate independently, Rubens said that because some of the facilitators of the Study Circles are members of the advisory committee that the committee might be able to help the implementation of Study Circles’ action plans.

Rubens said that Study Circles has been used at several other county high schools such as Blair and Rockville. Recommendations made by Study Circles groups in other schools created informal student sessions where students who were frustrated or angry can go and receive counsel from fellow students. Other recommendations have produced student awareness and diversity groups and have called for further Study Circles cycles and student-only Study Circles that meet during school hours to ensure student involvement.

THOSE WHO ATTENDED Wednesday’s meeting got a taste of what they will be a part of if they so choose. Landesman and Rubens divided the audience into two groups and then facilitated mock Study Circles discussions. Rubens began the discussion with a question that she said will be used to start the first official meeting as well.

“What was your reaction to the letter sent home to parents about the fight?” Rubens asked her group.

“I was surprised,” said one woman. “Usually the letters that I got from the school were written very professionally. I thought, ‘They’re definitely going to get some reaction to that.’”

Responses varied between disbelief and anger to indifference. Several participants said that they didn’t understand why the letter sent home referred to race.

“My reaction was, ‘What does breaking school rules have to do with race?’” said another woman.

Another woman said that every other letter she had ever received from the school had not described the race of students involved. She had been particularly angered by the language that directed parents to discuss the incident with their children.

“It’s like they were saying, ‘This is your opportunity to pass on any racist ideas you have to your children.’ I saw red.”

One man whose son is a student at Churchill said that the incident proved that people process information in distinctly different ways. He said the PTSA’s quick and unanimous backing of Benz was wrong because it undermined the concerns of those who were unhappy with her.

Many white people, he said, didn’t understand why the issue was upsetting to others, and conversely many black people could only look at it as highly offensive. He said the media made things worse by dividing the black community into two segments: one wealthy and unfazed by the incident, the other poor and very angry about the incident.

“This just proved to me that people can look at the same situation and process information in distinctly different ways,” he said.

Benz took part in the discussion and said that she chose the term “black on black violence” because it was language used by Montgomery County Police regarding the incident. The intention of her letter was to assure parents of all backgrounds that the school was a safe place for their children.

“What happened that day was very, very visible,” Benz said. “This was my way of saying that this was not racial. … They got into a fisticuffing thing in front of the building.”

AS THE MEETING CONCLUDED, many of the participants said that they were optimistic about the work that will be done by the Study Circles.

Landesman said that the discussion of the initial reactions to Benz’s letter was just the first step that those who participate in Study Circles will take.

“We got a chance in these 20 minutes to say how we felt, not what makes us feel these ways,” said Landesman.

The second step, Landesman said, would be to discuss what experiences and life events shaped those reactions.

Andrea James, whose daughter is a sophomore at Churchill, said that after Wednesday’s meeting she is encouraged that the Study Circles program will help pave the way for improved race relations at the school.

“I’m hopeful,” said James. “I think our diversity is an asset and something that should be celebrated.”