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The Fallout of a Fight

Taskforce looking at ways to deal with racial tensions in Churchill, but meetings are not open.

Two months after Winston Churchill High School’s Dr. Joan Benz deemed a fight on school grounds an example of ‘black on black violence,’ the community continues to deal with the fallout. Benz apologized for using language that could increase racial tensions.

Five students who were suspended for their roles in the fight were also recommended for expulsion by Benz, but all five are have returned to Montgomery County Public Schools, say members of the community.

Mark Kelsch, a community superintendent with Montgomery County Public Schools, would not comment on the status of the expulsions, citing MCPS rules regarding the privacy of the matters.

“I would be violating so many rules if I did that,” said Kelsch.

Kate Freeman, the mother of one of the students who was suspended and recommended for expulsion, said that her son was permitted to come back to Churchill but was transferred to an alternative learning facility within MCPS at her request.

Another of the students recommended for expulsion transferred elsewhere within MCPS, also at the request of the student’s parents, said Freeman. Freeman said that she believes that the other students involved have returned to classes at Churchill.

“I think this was all blown up,” Freeman said. “I think they tried to make examples out of [these students].”

IN THE WAKE of the public outcry regarding the fight and Benz’s comments, MCPS officials proposed the creation of a committee that would explore the sources of racial tension in Churchill and ways to ease them.

The Churchill Community Advisory Committee has been created and has met at least twice already, said Kelsch. Lori-Christina Webb, a deputy superintendent with MCPS, leads the committee. Webb said that Benz is a co-chair of the group.

At the Churchill PTSA meeting in January, Benz said that tension between Churchill and the Scotland community dated to the 1970s. Churchill was built in 1965, five years after Montgomery County Public Schools were fully integrated.

According to MCPS data, the 2005-2006 student body at Churchill was 66.8 percent white, 21.8 percent asian, 6.6 percent black, and 5.7 percent hispanic.

Long-time Scotland resident Bette Thompson said that two of her children who attended Churchill in the 1970s and 1980s, told her that they never felt comfortable or welcome at the school.

Freeman graduated from Churchill in 1975, and said the same was true when she was a student.

“I went to Churchill and it’s been like that since I went there,” Freeman said. Freeman said that the tension is not among students, but rather between the school’s administration and students.

“I wouldn’t say so much that it’s the students but the faculty and the staff,” Freeman said. Freeman said that her son never had any trouble with any of the students, and that while many of his teachers were well intentioned, others were content to let him fail.

“Some of the teachers cared enough to go out of the way [to help], but most of them didn’t,” Freeman said.

WEBB’S COMMITTEE will look at ways to improve relations between the school’s administration and all of its African American students, said Webb.

“Our goal is to develop a real understanding of the needs and perceptions of the Churchill community,” said Webb. “We’re not trying to isolate any one group but to work together as a community… [which] is always difficult when you’re working across lines of difference,” said Webb.

The group will ultimately create a set of recommendations that will be reviewed by Kelsch’s office. Webb said that the recommendations are to be ready sometime before the end of the school year and will be ready for implementation by the start of the next school year.

While the recommendations will not be binding, Kelsch said that he expected them to be implemented. Recommendations could include additional training for teachers and the establishment of a community service club or honor society for African American students within the school, said Kelsch.

The committee is made up of an ethnically diverse group of people from the community as well as Churchill teachers and administrators and MCPS officials, said Webb.

Webb said that the committee has approximately thirty people on it, but would not provide an exact number or the names of the members. Kelsch said that the meeting he attended in mid-February had approximately a dozen people in attendance.

Freeman said that she was asked by Benz to serve on the committee but could not because of a scheduling conflict.

While Webb said the group was made up of people of various backgrounds, she declined to provide a breakdown of the ethnic and racial composition of the group saying that that information was unavailable. Webb said that the committee included residents of the Scotland community, but would not say who or how many. She declined to give any specifics on the number of teachers and administrators on the committee or what the evaluation criteria was for selecting members to the committee.

Webb said that the opportunity for members of the community to offer their input to the community would happen in the coming months but said that no date had been determined yet.

Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and the director of the Institute for African American Leadership said that it is not uncommon for committees such as these to work without public input and access in their infancy.

“It can be kind of disruptive to put together a plan and have the public coming in and out of your meetings,” said Walters.

Still, Walters said that he didn’t understand why MCPS would shroud details of the committee’s membership in such secrecy.

“Some of [it] seems strange to me,” Walters said. “That is information that ought to be available to the public.”