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School Colors

Sophomore Samantha Varmer, 15, sports a brown Communication Arts Program tag with a white lanyard, showing that she is a member of one of the prestigious magnet programs at Blair.
Sophomore Samantha Varmer, 15, sports a brown Communication Arts Program tag with a white lanyard, showing that she is a member of one of the prestigious magnet programs at Blair. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The last thing any high school student wants is to be singled out.

So students at Montgomery County's largest high school are in an uproar over a new policy that requires them to wear color-coded IDs -- black for seniors, white for magnet kids and a particularly loud shade of yellow for students of limited English proficiency.

Ninth-graders at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring took particular umbrage at being forced to advertise their status with bright red badges and optional matching lanyards. Last week, after all, was Spirit Week, otherwise known as Freshman Hell Week.

The campus has been thrown into a state of rhetorical turmoil over the IDs, issued two weeks ago in 11 colors to denote various smaller learning "academies" within the 3,000-student campus.

The new policy "tags us like dogs," wrote Breton Sheridan, a junior, in one of hundreds of postings to various school Web sites.

Or, as sophomore Aisha Michael put it, "We look like Skittles now."

By color-coding children, school officials hoped to build a sense of identity -- and security -- in a school whose students have been divided into several smaller learning communities: maroon for future scientists, purple for diplomats in training, dark blue for entrepreneurs and so forth.

"What we did, we thought we were doing a good thing," Principal Phillip Gainous said.

But the new color system brought unintended consequences.

Students say the system amplifies differences that already divide teenagers of different academic and socioeconomic stripes.

As the staff of the Silver Chips student newspaper opined in an editorial, "Self-segregation is already an issue in the student body, and the formal distribution of color-coded IDs has essentially institutionalized the phenomenon."

At least three freshmen reported various forms of hazing: One was jumped at a bus stop; another was encircled by a menacing mob of upperclassmen; the third victim would not relate his sufferings in detail, Gainous said.


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