The following are remarks by Reverend Stephen Tillett, President, Anne Arundel Chapter of the NAACP. Tillett and others spoke out to address systematic racism and hatred.
Good morning. I thank each of you for taking this travesty seriously and coming to hear from members of the Anne Arundel County community concerning our desire for safe and secure schools for all of our young people to attend. As president of the AACo. Branch of the NAACP I am proud of our record of challenging the unfair treatment of children of color in county schools and, most recently, initiating a complaint that resulted in the formation of the Office of Equity Assurance and Human Relations in 2005-2006 which led to an historic increase in closing the Achievement Gap and tracked and targeting the even more stubborn Discipline Gap in AACPS.
Unfortunately, that Gap has persisted, as African American children are disciplined, either through referrals, suspensions or expulsions at twice the rate of their population in the school system. The last verifiable and published statistics in 2014 showed that while our young people were approximately 21% of the students in the system, they constituted around 44% of those who faced the disciplinary outcomes of referrals, suspension and expulsion.
Unfortunately, we have no clue what those numbers are now, as the transparency and partnership we enjoyed during Dr. Kevin Maxwell’s tenure stopped, for the most part, after his resignation. Once the sacking of almost the entire staff of the OEAHR staff was carried out under the interim superintendent during her 10-month reign, the valuable partnership that had been built over the previous 7-8 years was squandered and diminished.
Therefore, our first demand is that Anne Arundel County Public Schools produce the quality and depth of comprehensive statistics to show all county residents exactly what the numbers are with respect to student achievement and student discipline. It would be a shame to have to go back to the Office of Civil Rights process or litigation just to get some good numbers about how our children are faring in this system.
It is also important to note that leadership starts at the top. In the school, the principal sets the culture and determines the level of engagement with the community. Whether he or she will deal with issues directly or delay, obfuscate and kick the can down the road, it has a direct bearing on the school culture and their ability to navigate and overcome difficult challenges.
At the system level, the superintendent sets the tone…establishes the culture. As we’ve seen in the past, he or she relays to every administrator, principal, teacher, cook and custodian, what will and will not be acceptable in the system over which they preside. And even in our county government, our elected officials help to set the tone and establish the culture, whether it’s the County Council or the County Executive. In this instance, we have, at the very least, an optics problem.
On the one hand, Mr. Schuh has rolled out a plan called Anne Arundel United, which has the ambitious goal of bringing together County residents across every real or artificial divide, be it a neighborhood, political party or ethnicity. On the other hand, he seems to place party before this ambitious goal and donates to the campaign of and consorts with the likes of Roy Moore from Alabama. Here at home, it is even more injurious, as he enthusiastically supports County Councilman Michael Peroutka, whose affiliation with the “League of the South,” identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a Hate Group is exceedingly problematic. There is a point where naked politics should not trump (no pun intended) principle and doing the right thing.
I know Mr. Schuh is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and feels compelled to support Peroutka for that reason, but there is a time where principle must come before party! I am afraid that supporting these types of people, dilutes Mr. Schuh’s message and sends an unspoken signal of comfort to people for whom using the word “nigger” is second nature, that they, in turn, pass along to their children. This cancer of racism and ethnic hatred must be snuffed out, but as I said, leadership starts at the top and optics matter.
Next, while on the topic of leadership, I have learned that the contract extension accorded to Superintendent of Schools George Arlotto seems to be missing a key element. Dr, Maxwell’s contract tied his performance evaluation, at least in part, to the metrics concerning the closing of the Achievement Gap. This seems to have been removed from Dr. Arlotto’s contract. Given the level of challenge that students of color are experiencing in this system, it seems logical that Dr.Arlotto’s evaluations and those of his senior leadership team should be tied to performance in these areas of reducing both the Achievement Gap and the Discipline Gap. We want to truly see our schools “elevate all students and eliminate all gaps” because we do believe that all children can succeed. No exceptions! But at the end of the day, it is a matter of will. To simply to put nice sounding flowery words on paper is one thing, but to establish a standard that all educators, both teachers and administrators, understand is the standard and expectation we need to have in every one of our schools.
That makes the reasons that we felt compelled to call this press conference today even more egregious. In Chesapeake High School and its feeder schools, we see a decades-long pattern of resistance to change and the creation of a hostile environment for children of color. As you heard on the video, Mr. Keemer was in the first class of the newly opened Chesapeake HS. He was there when the school opened in 1976 and was in the first class of those who spent their entire HS tenure at CHS. He has testified to the racist environment to which he and his peers were subjected in the late 1970’s.
The great tragedy here is that, not only did his son face those same conditions, but now his grandson is doing so, as well, with the added bonus of being called a “nigger” by one of his teachers. And in spite of the persistent attempts his parents made to hold the school accountable and to meet with administrators and the offending teacher, things were, as usual, “swept under the rug” and delayed until the teacher Mr. Mallory could retire without facing sanction or discipline on March 1.
That is a travesty! If you’re bold enough to call a child a “nigger” you need to be man enough to be held accountable for the offense! A few years ago, the OEHR office would have been called in and would have initiated an intervention to incidents such as this and, in partnership with senior level staff, respond immediately. In fact, just a few years ago, when a similar incident occurred in the school, there was support to Chesapeake High School students and staff who developed strategies to change their reputation, conduct courageous conversations about race and other “isms”, and celebrate diversity.
Let me be clear, I do not hold the schools entirely accountable for the current state of affairs. It has been said that “children learn what they live.” And the question we all have to ask is how can children born in a new century and new millennium have brought forward the archaic mindsets and hateful ideologies of centuries-past? This new era, the 21st Century, is being infecting by the old hatreds. How did these “Gen Z” students get infected? Again, children learn what they live. They are growing up in a world that is increasingly diverse yet harkening back for days they never lived or experienced, personally, where the flags, symbols and hateful mindset of the defeated confederacy, which was routed in 1865, continue to toxify the relationships between white people and brown people over 150 years later.
In 1959 “Racism was defined by the President’s Council on Mental Health in Children as being the number one health problem among children in the United States.” That was near the end of the Eisenhower administration. It was not exactly an era of great enlightenment in the world or in the United States. That was just five years after the Brown v. Bd of Education case when many jurisdictions in the United States, especially in the South…and including here, up-South in Anne Arundel County, resisted court-ordered integration until 1966.
How sad it is that in 2018, that same mental illness has been passed from father to son to grandson and rears its ugly head in our schools, makes students feel unwelcome and unsafe, makes parents fear for their children and is the shame of the AACPS administration that continues to assert that these many incidents are all “isolated incidents.” The question is, how many “isolated incidents” does it take before something becomes a pattern? If a type of behavior was in effect in 1976 and something similar is still with us in 2018, I would say that’s a pattern. If our children are called out of their name on an almost daily basis, it cannot be dismissed as “isolated incidents.” Instead, these terroristic acts appear to be the order of the day in Chesapeake HS, and likely some others, as well, as it seems unlikely that this ignorance is limited just in Pasadena.
Therefore, Finally, AACPS must establish a Zero Tolerance policy for hate speech directed at individuals or groups of individuals in our schools. Our children must be protected and the days of allowing roving gangs of racist thugs to terrorize their fellow students without consequence has come to an end. There must be increased sanctions in response to harassment and terroristic threats made in our schools. Irrespective of however a child may be miseducated at home with respect to interactions with people of other cultures, they should not be allowed to bring that bile into the schools with them and terrorize other students without consequence!
As President Nelson Mandela said, “if we can be taught to hate we can learn to love!”
We are here today and will remain here to hold all of our leadership accountable to not only talk a good game, but enact policy and set the culture and the tone that makes the hopeful talk a reality.
Rev. Stephen Tillett is the president of the Anne Arundel County NAACP.
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