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Fight Week

Fight at Churchill and Benz’s response escalate into wider controversy about gangs, dress code and racial sensitivity.

One month after Winston Churchill High School was named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, it is embroiled in controversy sparked by a fight last week and the principal’s response that she later acknowledged was “racially insensitive.”

A fight between six Churchill students on Wednesday, Jan. 3, resulted in county police filing assault charges against five students. Churchill Principal Joan Benz sent an e-mail the following day describing the incident as “Black on Black violence” which triggered at least as much response as the fight itself.

Churchill is now posed with a barrage of uncomfortable questions. Is there a gang problem at Churchill? Does the school treat residents of the Scotland neighborhood as second-class citizens? Was it racially insensitive of Benz to refer to “Black on Black violence” in her letter to parents?

Some say that the past week’s events are a symptom of a larger problem. “There are problems in the school that go beyond this one incident,” said Henry Hailstock, president of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP.

Television trucks have lined Gainsborough Drive by the school every weekday since Thursday, when Benz sent the e-mails. Local bloggers — and at least a few distant ones — buzzed about the incident and Benz’s subsequent response. Students entered Churchill on Monday with a new dress code forbidding hats. Benz scheduled meetings this week with Churchill parents — one for parents of African-American students; the other for all concerned community members. Was this all much ado about nothing, or not enough ado about something big?

“This is just a small group of students; less than 10 out of a population of 2,200 students,” said Robyn Solomon, a Churchill parent.

Jay Dove, a Churchill ’78 graduate and parent of several recent Churchill graduates, felt otherwise. “[Benz] opened up a can of worms,” Dove said. “Pandora’s box has been opened.”

LAST WEDNESDAY’S FIGHT had been brewing for nearly two months. The same students were involved in a fight at school in November, according to a press release from county police. The students, their parents, Churchill staff and county police met for a mediation session shortly after the first fight, but in December, away from school grounds, they fought again.

Detective Rob Musser of Montgomery County Police said it was unfortunate that so much time and effort went into mediating the situation, only to have the fight result.

“It wasn’t enough,” Musser said.

More conflict would follow.

Last Wednesday, a verbal argument erupted between the same six students when they were near the school store, according to police. One of them, said police, suggested they take the fight outside. From there, said several Churchill students, a crowd of students gathered to watch the escalating fight. While the school enacted a Code Blue (all doors to the school are sealed), the fight turned physical. A school security guard who attempted to break up the fight was scratched and bruised, for which he received treatment at the school.

Police responded to the scene, and charged a 16-year-old Potomac student, a 14-year-old Potomac student, and a 15-year-old Silver Spring student as juveniles with second-degree assault and disturbing school activities. Another 16-year-old Potomac student was charged with two counts of second-degree assault. All of those charged were Churchill students.

According to police, the students were released to the custody of their families, and any penalties will be determined by the juvenile justice system. They were suspended from school for 10 days with a recommendation for expulsion.

THE NEXT DAY, Benz sent an e-mail and letter to Churchill’s students and parents about the incident and her subsequent decision to impose a stricter dress code at school. While lauding the increase in mean SAT scores among African-American students at Churchill, Benz said, “I have failed to mention to this point another devastating fact. Every incident revolving around this two month ordeal has been Black-on-Black violence. … Do you see how a very few students can paint a very negative and inaccurate picture?” (See "The First E-Mail" below for the entire e-mail.)

It wasn’t long before recipients of the e-mail reacted to these statements. Within six hours, Benz sent another e-mail, entitled “Clarification of Dr. Benz’s Letter,” in which she apologized for the wording of the first e-mail. (See "The Second E-mail, below)

“I deeply apologize to our Churchill students and parents who were offended and want to reassure you that I value each and every student in our school community and work every day to make sure each student is successful. I did not intend to single out one group of students in a negative light. I am particularly sorry that my choice of words reflected racial insensitivity,” Benz wrote this time.

“Dr. Benz has issued an apology for the racially insensitive language she used in her letter,” said Brian Edwards, county schools spokesperson.

TOO LATE, said Dove, who took issue with Benz’s first e-mail. “As a director of education, you’re supposed to know better,” Dove said. “You’re treating a segment of the community just to get it off your neck. … It’s a social problem; it’s not just ‘Black on Black.’”

“It was really insensitive, and it caused a rift in the community that should not have been there,” said Hailstock of the NAACP.

Hailstock said he plans to meet with community members, and hopes to see the Churchill cluster provide local students with more opportunities for conflict resolution, problem-solving, tutorial sessions and other after-school activities. Hailstock said that there is a lack of these opportunities now, but hopes there will be progress. “I have to stay positive,” he said.

Dove loved the Churchill High School he attended in the ‘70s. He’s less than thrilled about the 21st century Churchill that his children attended. He stressed that dealing with trouble at school requires accountability from both the school system and parents. In the ‘70s, Dove said, “Our principal interacted with our parents, so if we did something wrong, it was going to come back at us.”

OTHER PARENTS, like Solomon and Barry Smith, said they remained supportive of Benz.

“Our success … can be attributed to our principal,” Solomon said. “Dr. Benz is a very honest person; she is open with everyone.

“I’ve gotten e-mails, I’ve gotten phone calls, all in support of Dr. Benz,” Solomon continued.

Barry Smith, a Churchill parent, echoed these sentiments. “I have tremendous confidence in Dr. Benz,” he said. “She’s been nothing but terrific to students. … She has my unwavering support.”

Concerning the e-mail, Solomon said, “Maybe it was a poor choice of words,” but she also said that similar terminology was used by the police in describing the incident. Solomon also said it was important for Benz to communicate about the new dress code so families could discuss it. “That’s why parents got the letter, because it affects the kids,” Solomon said.

Benz did not respond to any of several requests for comment.

ON MONDAY, the new dress code went into effect with minimal opposition. Churchill junior Matt Sack said he saw several students who wore hats, but removed them when a teacher asked them to.

“We’re really one of the few high schools left [where students] are allowed to wear hats,” Solomon said. “Now we’re like every other high school. … It’s not singling anyone out.”

“That’s accurate,” said Musser of the county police department. “I think what they’re proposing at Churchill is an excellent idea.

A county-wide dress code is in place that prohibits students from wearing any clothing that represents gang affiliation, said Edwards, the schools’ spokesperson. This dress code is detailed in the Students Rights and Responsibilities. Each school has the latitude to augment the specific implementation of that policy as it sees fit, Edwards said, and many schools throughout the county do not allow students to wear hats. Such specific augmentation as the disallowance of red t-shirts or Michael Jordan sneakers, as directed by Benz, is well within an individual school’s right of discretion, Edwards said.

BENZ WAS SCHEDULED to meet with the parents of African-American students at Churchill on Tuesday night to discuss the situation surrounding last week’s fight and her subsequent letter to parents. She is then scheduled to meet with all parents and concerned community members at Churchill on Thursday night to discuss the issue and to address safety and security matters at Churchill.

Benz met students on Friday and Monday to answer questions they had on the past week’s events at school. Sack, who attended the Monday session, said most of the students’ questions concerned the dress code. “It was the same kids asking the same stupid questions,” said Sack.

Monday was the first day of the new dress code Benz imposed. Churchill students were prohibited from wearing bandannas, do-rags, skull caps, hoods over the head, or hats of any type except those “related to a specific culture or religion.” (See "The First E-Mail," below, for the policy as described in Benz’s e-mail.)

Some students talked about staging a civil-disobedience protest by wearing hats to school on Monday, said Sack. He said he saw students wearing hats on Monday, but nearly every one of them removed the hat when told to by a teacher.

“We want parents to understand that we are doing everything we can to make their schools safe,” Edwards said.

In the coming weeks a work group will be formed to address concerns raised by students and the community in the wake of the incident. The work group will be compose of members of the local community as well as Churchill parents, staff, and students and will be headed by Dr. Frieda Lacey, deputy superintendent of schools for MCPS.

— Aaron Stern also reported for this article.

A GANG?

Of the five Churchill students charged in relation to last week’s fight, four were described as members of a gang called 54 MOB in a police press release about the incident.

Is 54 MOB in fact a gang?

Yes, said Detective Rob Musser of the Montgomery County Police Gang Unit, but it’s largely a matter of definition. This is not a large, national-scale gang like the Crips or the Bloods or MS-13.

“They’ll tell you in their own words it’s not a gang,” Musser said. Rather, it’s a fairly small group limited to Potomac’s Scotland neighborhood, Musser said.

He added that the fight at Churchill is “not what you would consider gang-related crime,” Musser said. “It’s gang members committing crime.”

By the definition of a gang used by police, Musser said, 54 MOB fits the bill. The police definition of a gang is a group of three or more people who connect themselves with a common identifier (like colors or signs) and is engaged in a pattern of criminal activity — like tagging graffiti, robbery and drug possession, according to a police press release.

Is the community overreacting to last Wednesday’s incident, or is it underestimating the prevalence of gang activity? Both, said Musser.

“Citizens of Potomac would be naïve to think there couldn’t be a gang in that part of the county,” Musser said. However, he added, “I also think they blow it out of proportion. … Gang violence is usually gang on gang.”

Jay Dove, a Churchill graduate whose family roots go more than two centuries back in Scotland, says there’s nothing of the sort in the neighborhood.

“When was the last time Scotland had anybody shot? … Who are they robbing? They don’t go anywhere; they sit right there on the rail of the Community Center,” Dove said. “How many drugs can you sell in that neighborhood? There’s one way in, one way out.”

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THE FIRST E-MAIL

Churchill Principal Joan Benz

Dear Churchill Students and Parents,

Yesterday there was a multi-faceted fight that took place in the bus loop in front of our Bulldog entrance on Gainsborough Road. Problems which began in the community were brought into our school. The students moved from the cafeteria area to the front of the building with the intent to fight.Three students were charged with second degree assault on other students within the same group. A fourth student was charged with second degree assault on one of our Security Staff members. He was kicked, his glasses broken and he has cuts and scrapes on his face and arms. We are thankful that he was not injured to any greater degree. No weapons were involved in this incident. The students have been suspended for ten days with a recommendation for expulsion.

The problems and behaviors of this small group of students surfaced in early November. Numerous individual conferences with the students and their parents have occurred in the past two months, often before and after suspensions for intimidating behaviors, abusive language and fighting. These behaviors were directed at other students, staff members and members of the Montgomery County Police Department. Similar assaults and threats have continued in various parts of our community.

On November 14, 2006, I required the identified students and their parents to attend a mediation meeting conducted by four members of the Montgomery County Police Department. The lead officer was an Inspector with the Gang Unit. Parents were made aware that the behaviors exhibited, intimidation, group retaliation, wearing of certain colors, and lack of respect for any authority aligned with police knowledge of gang development and recent increased activity across the County. On December 4, 2006, the same panel of officers presented gang related information to the Churchill staff to make them aware of these increased activities in the community and in our school.

A small group of students have changed our educational climate. The many behavioral interventions I’ve put into place for these students have not assisted them to make good choices. There is a devastating contrast when students are assaulting each other and a Churchill Security Team member next to a marquee stating our Maryland Blue Ribbon status. I have failed to mention to this point another devastating fact. Every incident revolving around this two month ordeal has been Black-on-Black violence. At the very time yesterday’s assaults were taking place, I learned that the SAT mean scores for our African-American students had risen an amazing two-hundred three points with an increase by thirty-three percent in their participation rate. Do you see how a very few students can paint a very negative and inaccurate picture?

I have resisted making the following decision, but now it is essential to guarantee the safety and security of all Churchill students and staff members. Because gang members use “visual cues” to identify themselves for affiliation and intimidation purposes, effective on Monday, January 8, 2007, Churchill students will not be allowed to wear hats except those directly related to a specific culture or religion. No bandanas, do-rags, skull caps or hoods are to be worn over the head. No bandanas, flags, banners, pieces of fabric, are allowed to be attached to the student or to his/her belongings. Notebooks or books, containing or upon which graffiti appears, will be confiscated.

When you receive this letter, please discuss its contents with your student. I first want to apologize to the majority of Churchill students who daily come to school with a priority focus on receiving an excellent education. Secondly, I want all students to realize why the described additions to our Discipline Policy have become necessary at this time. Our safety and security must be guaranteed. In addition to this letter, I will announce to the students my expectation for their compliance with these new rules effective on Monday, January 8, 2007.

Very sincerely,

Joan C. Benz

Principal

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THE SECOND E-MAIL

Dear Churchill Students and Parents:

I want to clarify some of the comments from my earlier letter. Upon reflection, and after discussing the letter with my colleagues and some parents, I realize that my comments were taken in a way that I did not intend.

I deeply apologize to our Churchill students and parents who were offended and want to reassure you that I value each and every student in our school community and work every day to make sure each student is successful. I did not intend to single out one group of students in a negative light. I am particularly sorry that my choice of words reflected racial insensitivity.

Also, please be assured that we take student safety extremely seriously here at Churchill and are committed to doing everything we can to ensure a safe and orderly educational environment for all of our students.

Churchill is a safe school. We have an excellent working relationship with the police department and we will continue taking the precautions and actions we deem necessary and appropriate to maintain a safe environment for our students and staff.

Again, I am sorry that my initial letter caused hurt to members of the Churchill community and will continue to work toward creating a learning environment where all feel valued and respected.

Very sincerely,

Joan C. Benz