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Damage Assessment

Benz: friction between Scotland and Churchill dates to 1970s.

Winston Churchill High School will launch a new task force to address tensions between the Scotland community and the school, according to Mark Kelsch, the community superintendent for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Churchill Principal Joan Benz said that a rift between the Scotland community and Churchill has existed since the 1970s, and that tension was exposed by a serious fight at the school and fallout from language Benz used in notifying parents about the fight.

“It’s been more undercover sometimes than others, and right now it’s in the open,” Benz said.

The task force of parents and members of the community will look at ways to heal those wounds, Kelsch said. The task force will meet privately but will hold public meetings to get input from the community. It is still being assembled and no dates have been set for any meetings.

NEARLY TWO WEEKS after the fight and Benz’s response exposed racial tensions at Churchill, many questions remain unanswered. Does Churchill have a gang problem? Why do some minority students and parents at Churchill feel overlooked by the school’s administration? And will Benz remain principal of Churchill High School?

In response to the fight Benz sent a letter home to parents in which she characterized the fight as “Black on Black violence,” drawing criticism from many. Benz sent another letter within hours apologizing for choosing words that “reflected racial insensitivity.”

“At no time have we talked about any option other than Benz continuing to be the principal,” said Kelsch, adding that position, which he discussed with county schools Superintendent Jerry Weast, would not change.

Kelsch was among several speakers at the Churchill PTSA meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 16. The meeting was open to the public and gave parents and members of the community the opportunity to ask questions after remarks by Benz, Kelsch, Churchill PTSA president Robyn Solomon and Luis Cardona, Youth Violence Prevention Coordinator for MCPS. But parents could not ask questions directly; instead the questions were written down before and during the meeting, then submitted them to Dr. Liza Durant, co-coordinator of the Churchill cluster of schools. Each question was addressed to one of the four speakers. The identities of those asking each question were kept anonymous.

“WHEN WILL THERE be a vote of ‘no confidence’ by the [Montgomery County] School Board,” said Durant in reading one of the anonymous questions. The question continued, faulting Weast for a lack of leadership during the controversy and for not backing Benz publicly.

“The decision was made to allow Dr. Benz to stand forth,” said Kelsch of conversations that he had with Weast. “My goal was to stand behind her,” Kelsch said, adding that Weast also supports Benz.

Kelsch also said that published reports that Benz would be disciplined indicated a violation of MCPS policy within the administration to make such matters public.

“Where that came from I have no idea, and I abhor that it even happened,” Kelsch said.

One questioner wanted to know how Benz was holding up through the controversy.

“I’m standing as tall as my 5-1 frame will allow me, and I will continue to do that. … I will do anything I can to help all of your children be successful,” Benz said.

IN HER INITIAL e-mail to Churchill parents after the fight, Benz said that several of those involved in the fight were affiliated with a gang. One of the first questions at Tuesday’s meeting asked Benz if Churchill had one gang or more than one gang.

Benz responded that the fight had been with a core group of students that were involved in gang-like behavior, but that Churchill as a whole did not have a gang problem. Luis Cardona, a former gang member who served time in prison in the 1990s, said that the students involved in the fight were not a gang, but rather just a group of good kids in need of direction and guidance.

“I know what a gangster is,” Cardona said. “Ladies and gentleman, these kids aren’t gangsters.” Cardona said that while they met some of the criteria used by police to define a gang — such as wearing certain colors to show affiliation — that those involved in the fight in no way embodied what is typically thought of as a gang.

“There are kids that don’t feel welcome, [who feel] like they don’t belong,” said Kelsch, who added that it is typical of young people who feel that way to look for niches and groups to associate with.

Cardona said that the students involved in the fight, and other students like them, need to be pulled aside and given guidance and encouragement by their parents and teachers rather than to be pushed to the margins of the educational system.

“We have to realize at some point that all kids, despite their race or their socioeconomic value, have some redeeming quality in them,” Cardona said. “Right now as a community we’re at the point where we need to start the healing process. We need to look at our homes and at what we’re doing to influence the direction and the future of our kids.”

Cardona said that punishing the students further would provide negative reinforcement and would validate their behavior in their own eyes.

THE STUDENTS involved in the fight were recommended by Benz for expulsion, and both Benz and Kelsch said that that had not changed.

“If there was going to be any intervention in [the expulsion] process, I’d have done it,” Kelsch said. Kelsch said that he did not anticipate that the recommendation for expulsion would be withdrawn for any of the students. A student who is expelled can not attend any other school in the MCPS system for one year and must make his or her own arrangements for education, Kelsch said.

Benz said that statistics show that many students who are expelled do not return after the one-year period and instead drop out of school altogether.

“When a child is expelled we always worry — have we lost them?” Benz said. Despite that concern the process will continue, Kelsch said, because of the nature of the incident and because previous attempts at intervention among the students — including suspensions and meetings with the students’ parents — were unsuccessful.

“We don’t want violence — we don’t want violence in any way,” said Kelsch. “We also don’t want to lose the kids involved, but safety always has to come first.”

During the fight a school security guard was knocked to the ground and kicked and punched and suffered scrapes and bruises and had his glasses broken. Benz said the guard, who she did not name but said that he had worked at Churchill for more than 20 years, did not miss a day of work and that the school bought replacement glasses for him.

IN THE WAKE OF the controversy that has surrounded Benz, the 29 members of Churchill’s PTSA publicly endorsed Benz and supported her continuing tenure as Churchill’s principal. Churchill was recently one of two high schools in the state of Maryland to be awarded a Blue Ribbon Award by the Maryland State Department of Education.

A letter from the PTSA distributed at Tuesday’s meeting credited Benz for her work with all students, including her efforts to help poor and disadvantaged students succeed academically. The letter noted that during her ten year tenure as principal, Benz has overseen the creation of the Scotland Partnership for Excellence and ExCELS (Expanding our Commitment to Excellence in Leadership and Scholarship), programs that have provided computers to the Scotland community as well as tutors, mentoring programs and homework clubs, said Solomon. In 2001 Benz was awarded Montgomery’s Best County Partnership Award for her efforts to help disadvantaged students be successful.

“I have always worked to make each and every child successful,” said Benz. “Keep working with us, keep talking to us and we’re going to get back to where we were.”

SOME IN ATTENDANCE at Tuesday’s meeting wondered what had taken the school so long to have such a meeting, particularly since an earlier meeting with the parents of African American students had not been announced to other Churchill parents.

Kelsch said that the school reserves the right to meet with whoever they choose, and that the previous meeting was intended to address the specific concerns of the parents of African American students at the school.

The meeting on Tuesday was the regularly scheduled PTSA meeting that occurs on the third Tuesday of each month, said Solomon.

“Tonight’s meeting was supposed to deal with gangs, sex and drugs. Sex and drugs will be next month,” Solomon said, drawing laughter from the crowd for the first and only time that night.