Board of Ed Candidates Answer Questions on How to Deal with Racism & Bias in County Schools

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BLM protests have occurred across Anne Arundel County in 2020

In Anne Arundel County, voters in Council districts 2, 3 and 6 will have many important choices to make on Election Day. Among these choices will be new races, for seats on the County Board of Education, as it transitions fully from an appointed to an elected body.

In a continued effort to help voters know their candidates and how they stand on the issues, the Arundel Patriot has graciously allowed space for periodic columns about the Board of Education candidates, and where they stand on issues or recent policy decisions.

I’ve solicited feedback on transportation versus mental health, which can be found here:

And, I’ve solicited opinions from our Board of Education contenders on Coronavirus and safe reopening, which can be found here: https://www.arundelpatriot.org/2020/08/08/board-of-ed-candidates-on-how-they-would-handle-education-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/

Before I get to the questions, I, as the reporter, feel I must disclose than I am a steering committee member of OnePasadena, a group formed to address racism in Pasadena; and I work with other groups, such as SURJ3A and the United Black Clergy of Anne Arundel County to address racism in our communities. However, I have attempted to reproduce the answers provided faithfully and without bias.

Also, as full disclosure, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education has responded to racism in Anne Arundel County schools, with endorsement and support of the Black Lives Matter movement. See https://www.aacps.org/cms/lib/MD02215556/Centricity/Domain/157/NEWBoardResolutionSocialJustice8-26-20.pdf for the specifics.

For this article, I asked about racism in Anne Arundel County, and in our public schools, with three questions:

“I have a three part question:

            Do you believe Anne Arundel County has a problem with racism?

            Do you believe that this impacts Anne Arundel County schools?

            If elected, how would you use your position to address it?”

I’ve summarized the answers below, to hopefully convey the candidates positions sufficiently and in the interest of space. Full responses are available upon request.

District 2:

Robert Silkworth:

Do you believe Anne Arundel County has a problem with racism?

“I believe that we, as a country, do have a problem with racism. I have said over and over  that there is NO place in our schools or our communities for racism. There is NO place for bullying.  There is NO place for any inappropriate action by anyone to take the happiness of another away!

My experience in school is that our young people relate well with one another, probably more so today, than in the past. Diversity is celebrated today much more than ever. Unfortunately, however, we still do have some cases of racism and hate in schools. One case is too many.

 Students are a product of their environment. When they grow up in families surrounded by racism and hate, it makes it very difficult for them. They learn and sometimes they imitate. We,  ALL, must accept the responsibility to teach our children the importance of acceptance and caring  for everyone, regardless of the differences.”

Do you believe that this impacts Anne Arundel County schools?

Schools are certainly impacted because students are a product of their environment. We  must set examples and we must make sure that at an early age we provide students with  instruction and information to teach them that every person is unique and important.  

When we build relationships with our students, their parents, and our colleagues, we create a foundation of caring and trust which eliminates hate, racism, and bullying. When we encounter hate, racism, and bullying, we must act and speak out against it.  Everyone needs to know that Anne Arundel County Schools will not tolerate racism or hate at all.

If elected, how would you use your position to address it?

My platform is based on the importance and the value of building relationships with all  stakeholders. I have been building relationships and collaborating with stakeholders for more  than 48 years. So, for me, it will not be a new beginning. It will be a continuation of what I have  been doing already, but on a larger scale.

Currently, Anne Arundel County Schools are focused on eliminating hate and racism and  bullying from our classes and our schools. The challenge is to eliminate these negative things  from our communities as well and that takes cooperation from everyone.  

The best way to achieve the goal of eliminating hate and racism and bullying is by teaching  our students that collaboration is better than confrontation. Communication is better than silence  and in Anne Arundel County, ALL MEANS ALL. Loving, caring, respecting, nurturing, and trusting  one another are all key components of creating a safe environment in which we can build  relationships with one another. That is the goal of the school system.

When we encounter hate crimes and racism and bullying, as a school system, we must  not tolerate them in our schools. We must determine the facts quickly and provide appropriate  consequences immediately. These consequences must include a restorative approach as well.

I do believe that we should look at the Student Code of Conduct with a safety and equity lens. My experience over 48 years as a teacher and as a parent tells me that our young people  will rise to the level of our expectations and they will fall as well, if our expectations are not high  enough. Students will sometimes fall, but they must learn to get back up. If you fall and stay  down, you will never climb again.

Young people must learn from their failures and they must persevere. Their climb to  success will reach greater heights when they are taught the values of an education, not only for their future, but for the future of our communities and society as well.  

As a member of the Board of Education I will try to answer the question that so many  students and parents are asking, “What is school for?” For many of our students, the piece that  is lacking is the relevancy of it all. The good news is that we are having those conversations in  our schools now and we are making changes.  

As a member of the Board of Education, I will advocate for and I will support positive changes that will improve the instruction that we provide to our students. Students will know what  school is for and they will present themselves with a positive attitude towards the learning  environment as well as their teacher, staff, and fellow students. When students are engaged in  relevant learning experiences, with a positive attitude, they thrive.  

As a member of the Board of Education, it will be my mission to make sure that all  stakeholders know what school is for. It will be for engaging students in relevant learning activities  that will help them achieve their goals and their dreams without the fear of racism, hate, or  bullying.  

We have for many years, as educators, been bully blockers. We must also be hate  blockers and racism blockers. We must block anything which will rob our students of their precious  right to a safe and nurturing learning environment.  

Failure is not an option because every student, every child, has greatness within  themselves. Helping them attain their goals and helping them realize those dreams, will be my  focus. Our future as a county depends on the young people we teach.

Ralph Turnage, Jr.:

            Mr. Turnage did not offer a written reply, at the time of submitting this article. In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. Turnage did offer an online interview to answer my questions, and I must also point out that he is a past president of the Anne Arundel NAACP chapter. I hope to update his response after the online interview.

District 3:

Ken Baughman:

Do you believe Anne Arundel County has a problem with racism?

“Throughout the summer we’ve seen unrest and the call for equality across the country. Anne Arundel County is no different — racism exists here. If we’re unaware of racist behaviors and don’t take time to examine our own unconscious biases, we might not see it.”

Do you believe that this impacts Anne Arundel County schools?

“Our schools are part of our community; so, of course racism impacts our schools. I’ve taught in Anne Arundel County for over thirty years and I’ve seen the inequities firsthand from food insecurity to lack of health care to transportation.”

If elected, how would you use your position to address it?

“There are several things we can do to address racial disparity:

  • We need to hire qualified teachers of color to diversify our experience within schools.
  • Teachers should go through extended training on understanding racial disparity to give them the opportunity to recognize it in their classrooms.
  • The Board should boil down how we’re allocating money to schools throughout the county. Do our county’s Black and brown students have equal access to programs that exist in predominantly white neighborhoods?
  • As a community, we need to ensure students have equal access to an education. Helping students meet basic needs is crucial in helping them succeed in school. One important step is supporting poverty grants to public schools in which 80% of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In addition, our students in low-income areas need access to healthcare practitioners and mental health services.”

Corine Frank:

            No response.

District 6:

Joanna Tobin:

Do you believe Anne Arundel County has a problem with racism?

Do you believe that this impacts Anne Arundel County schools?

If elected, how would you use your position to address it?

“I first came to live in this country when I was seven years old, having been born in Trinidad and previously lived in Guyana, Hong Kong, Zambia and Nigeria because of my father’s career as a U.S foreign service officer.  After spending three years here, we then returned overseas and lived in Cameroon and Ghana before I returned to Pennsylvania for high school.  When we first moved to the U.S. I was immediately struck by the profound effects of racism on all aspects of American life and culture – it determined where people lived, how they were treated, where they went to school, and what they were able to do professionally.  When I returned to Africa, my impressions were confirmed.  Racism was at the core of the American experience in a way that is deeper and more far-reaching than any other place I have ever experienced.  While specific advances have been made in my lifetime, that essential insight remains the same.  So, yes, I believe racism is alive and thriving in  Anne Arundel County. I’ve witnessed racist incidents and heard the heartbreaking stories of hate and bias experienced by friends. Most recently, I’ve seen it myself in the heckling at Black Lives Matter protests that I’ve attended. More to the point, data reported by the Maryland State Police places Anne Arundel County as number one among all 23 Maryland counties having the highest number of hate and bias crimes reported annually. This is a deeply disturbing way for our county to be a leader in the state.

Racism impacts our schools through many avenues. For one, schools reflect their populations, and in turn are shaped by the environments in which children learn and grow. When children are exposed to hate and bias at home, they will bring racist ideas and racist language with them to school. Also, teachers and staff may carry the implicit biases that come with being a part of a racist structure that shapes and affects our understanding, actions, and decisions whether we are aware of it or not. School Resource Officers may also harbor explicit or implicit biases; too often they are unaware of their implicit prejudices and assumptions.

The racist structure in our society reasserts and recreates itself in  AACPS in many ways. Minority students are affected daily by intended and unintended bias.  It may the explicit case of a Black athlete hearing a racial slur muttered when shaking hands with a student on an opposing team.  Or it may be manifested in a white student being recommended for an honors math class, when a Black student scored the same on a standardized math test but is passed over. Bias may be reflected in the vast disparity in arrest numbers between Black and white students. Finally, the effects of systemic racism are evidenced in the ever-present opportunity gap.

If elected to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, I will work to address the problem of racism in a number of ways within the budget and policy mandates of the BOE—along with overseeing the actions of the AACPS superintendent and his staff. My areas of focus will include:

  • Ensure sufficient resources are provided to support the Global Citizenship Course, as well as continued development of holistic curricula for all grade levels to include local history, particularly around the history of African Americans as well as racism in Anne Arundel County.  All our students need to learn exactly what the history of their own community has been and continues to be.
  • Ensure resources are available for including and growing truly diverse and culturally relevant curricula.
  • Ensure resources are available for continued implicit bias and trauma-informed teaching training for all teachers and staff, and inclusion of this work in all curricula development.
  • Ensure resources are available for continuing to hire a more diverse teaching corps.  Research shows clearly that when students of color are in classrooms with more teachers of color, they are more likely to flourish and succeed.
  • Advocate for policies around hate and bias crimes that are clear and consistent, and ensure there are consistent consequences, system-wide.
  • Require monthly reporting on disciplinary data, disaggregated to show any disparities around race and ethnicity.
  • Require annual reporting on student populations distributed by class levels, including general, honors, AP and magnet programs, again disaggregated to show any disparities between students of different race and ethnicity.

Finally, I will take every opportunity to call out racism where it is found, as I do now, actively speaking out on behalf of anti-racism.  Stepping up in this way, I believe, is one of the most critical responsibilities of leadership. That is why I wrote a letter to the Editor of the Capital that was published recently urging the Anne Arundel County Board of Education to vote to support the resolution brought forward by Mr. Drake Smith that articulated support for Dr. Andrea Kane, the Superintendent of Queen Anne’s County Schools, as she works to fight racism in her district and support Black Lives Matter.

The health and integrity of any organization depends upon its leaders acting in ways that are clearly aligned with the organization’s stated values and mission. But in education, walking the talk is even more important for one simple reason: while our children may not necessarily do what we say, they will always do what we do. Children carefully watch the adults around them and quickly discern whether those adults are sincere or not. As an educator and a parent, I know this to be true.”

India Ochs:

Do you believe Anne Arundel County has a problem with racism?

“We have a much, much deeper problem if simply asked if Anne Arundel County has a problem with racism.  At the very least, the question should be to what extent does our county have a problem with racism. Unless someone avoids all news and social media, it would be hard not to know the extent of systemic racism within all facets of our county. The county declared racism a public health crisis in 2019 and planned to establish a new Office of Health Equity and Racial Justice.  There was a packed “Forum on Bias & Hate Crimes” hosted by the county two weeks before the shutdown. Our county continues to have the most reported hate incidents in the state. While one might think the rise in hate incidents is because more people are reporting, data suggests otherwise with a large dip during Obama’s second term before spiking again. For those who appreciate numbers, like I do, as supporting evidence,  2009-2011 saw annual reported incidents at 40, 44, and 47, then it dropped to 19 incidents in 2012, with 23, 13, and 22 annual incidents from 2013-2015, before jumping to 47, 63, and 78 incidents during 2016-2018. And the talk of Pasadena being a hotbed of racism is not just rhetoric: in 2018 the 21122 zip code had the most reported hate incidents within our county, while 21061 (Glen Burnie, Severn) came in second. Yet racism definitely is not isolated to just those communities in the news.  We can find incidents of racism almost every day, in any community within the county, connected to housing or employment, vandalism of people’s homes, or even how people of color are treated walking into certain stores.  And don’t get me started on how ingrained racism is at schools, but that is a good segue to the next question.”

Do you believe that this impacts Anne Arundel County schools?

“Again, the question should be how much we believe racism impacts our public schools, because there have been too many incidents, at school or involving students, across the county to ignore its impact.  Nooses at schools, racist flyers in school parking lots, racist slurs online, high rates of students of color being suspended or referred to the police, including our youngest in primary grades – it is clear racism is alive and well within AACPS. And it’s not just middle or high school: my son talked about how bad racism was back in 1st grade when one of his friends was called the N-word by an adult (outside of school), and speed up three years and other adults throw racist statements against my son for things he said in support of Black people. Even as I respond to these questions, we are seeing alleged racist actions at different schools within the Annapolis cluster: one being fostering a racist culture by a principal and PTA and the other being questionable racist Facebook posts by an assistant principal (both of which deserve an independent review).  And I will just be blunt – change must come from the top and it is difficult to believe in AACPS when there is inconsistency in how they react to racist incidents. I am sure AACPS is sincere with the intent to eliminate racism and protect all our kids, but intent only goes so far when one sees numerous statements over the years with the message of “this is when we start”. If the latest starting point was after George Floyd’s murder, what happened to all the other rallying cries to act on hate and racism prior to that?  A Joint Initiative to Eliminate the Opportunity Gap was created and public meetings with breakout sessions were held.  Youth forums are on AACPS’s YouTube channel. Much work is being done within the Office of Equity and Accelerated Student Achievement.  Yet these efforts remind me of a humorous yet all to realistic post on Facebook depicting how schools (in general) stall and defuse student activist efforts or demands with 1) listening sessions, 2) instituting a special task force, 3) hiring chief diversity officers, and/or 4) climate surveys.  We can not stall the efforts to eliminate racism within AACPS any longer. “

If elected, how would you use your position to address it?

“It wasn’t just equity that encompassed all parts of my campaign, but racism specifically that can be found in virtually every area we want to see change within AACPS. Combating racism has been part of my life’s work for almost two decades, especially when it comes to our youth. Seeing the horrific and unjust treatment of students of color, especially students of color with disabilities, during my work implementing juvenile detention reform initiatives in over 100 counties across the United States, I already had a long list of action items I wanted AACPS to address, and was a key factor in deciding to run for the Board knowing I would act on these initiatives on Day One. 

When I say on my website that we need to “engage with the community to create a sense of system- and community-urgency to aggressively do “whatever it takes” for every student to achieve success in school”, that is based on the systemic racism causing our most vulnerable students of color to be denied the quality education they deserve, whether it’s the subtle ways staff treat certain students (reprimanding a Black student in front of the class) or failure to accommodate their needs (sending a voice mail in broken English to a Spanish family). If elected I will continue my efforts – until it gets done – to

1) eliminate the preschool to prison pipeline culture and changing disciplinary practices that disproportionately affect our students of color, including those with disabilities (including diverting more resources to mental health supports and less on law enforcement);

2) reinstate a system to monitor the performance of all students, specifically securing publicly accessible monthly statics of the demographics behind student discipline referrals, citations, and arrests;

3) make monthly reports provided to the Board accessible to the public, instead of a 3-5 minute verbal summary during Board meetings; and

4) ensure the recently updated AACPS policies on bullying and biased behavior are properly enforced. I also would continue pushing AACPS to communicate serious incidents like hate crimes with all AACPS families and not just the specific school when they occur, and that the Board stays transparent at every step along the way, on whatever we are doing, being clear about why we are taking that step and answering questions, while protecting certain personal identifiable information.

I also totally respect that AACPS has done a lot to try to recruit and retain teachers of color, but I will continue to live by my philosophy that it does not matter how much we do right, if it’s not working, it’s not enough, and we must do more. Which is why as a Board member I would advocate for new ways to recruit, hire, and retain teachers and school administrators of color. Moreover, a key part of my advocacy is to ensure teachers of color are not segregated into certain stereotypes like special education, and thus are appropriately placed in ALL subjects/grades and provided leadership opportunities like being department heads. I said this at a recent forum, but we cannot ever allow school administrators to cave to parents asking to remove their kids from a class because the parents do not trust a teacher of color.  I will also add, regardless of how good staff professional development training on equity and anti-racism might be, it will all be for naught if we don’t ensure appropriate measures are in place to track actual implementation of what was taught.

Finally, we also must strengthen our curriculum and school activities throughout the year to reflect our diverse student population, which means going beyond just a few  “unity days” or Black history month, and integrating anti-racism content into discussions starting in pre-K, along with including the heroes and struggles of Black and brown people within local history, and basically just including race and racism within every subject matter.

At the end of the day, every aspect of school must be changed to support equitable and safe education for all our kids, whether its school building names, how kids are greeted at the door every morning, content in the lessons or opportunities to fully – and easily – participate in the fun school activities that actually teach more to our kids than what is in certain text books.”

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