Blacks' Long Anxiety Over Churchill Grows

By Daniel de Vise and Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 6, 2007

Students who ride the bus from the modest townhouses of Scotland past million-dollar McMansions to Winston Churchill High School say they have always felt singled out -- for dress-code infractions, for culpability in a fight and, ultimately, for transfer to another school.

At the close of this week, students and parents in one of Montgomery County's oldest black enclaves said their unease about the celebrated high school had deepened immeasurably. Four young men from Scotland, a 10-acre swath of affordable housing tucked among the sprawling homes of Potomac, have been charged in a fight that unfolded Wednesday in front of the school, reprising a long-simmering feud that started after a boy and a girl broke up.

A letter from the school principal sent home with students Thursday has widened the rift. "Every incident revolving around this two month ordeal has been Black-on-Black violence," wrote Principal Joan C. Benz at a moment when Scotland residents felt particularly unwelcome on campus.

"Their problem is that this is their address," said Kay Freeman, whose son was among those involved in Wednesday's fight. "It's always 'those Scotland kids.' "

Leaders of the Montgomery school system quickly condemned the principal's statement as racially insensitive, even as some Churchill parents, black and white, rose to defend her as a caring educator who tripped over some ill-chosen words. Benz held a forum with students at lunch yesterday to discuss her comments and has scheduled meetings with parents for next week.

Disquiet over the principal's comments have all but overshadowed the fight, an unusually violent episode preceded by skirmishes going back months, distracting school-system leaders from their usual no-tolerance message regarding students who fight. A group of students from Scotland were at the center of Wednesday's fight. Police said four of the five students charged as juveniles are affiliated with 54 MOB, a Scotland gang that had been feuding with another group of black youths.

Benz apologized in a second letter, sent home via e-mail Thursday and on paper yesterday. But the intensity of the reaction among community leaders suggests the dispute is far from over.

"That paragraph was insulting. I'm sorry," said Christopher Barclay, a black community leader from Takoma Park who is newly appointed to the school board. "If I was a parent at that school, she would have gotten a call from me, if not a personal visit."

Board of Education President Nancy Navarro said yesterday that she was "pretty shocked" by the statement. School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast "is very upset that this letter was sent and that these racial comments were made," said Brian Edwards, spokesman for the school system. He stressed that Benz's letter was not reviewed or approved by senior staff, which is standard operating procedure. Benz said that she attempted to send it to a supervisor but that it was not reviewed in time. Edwards said the supervisor did not receive the letter until 3:30 p.m., well after the school's dismissal.

A source close to the superintendent, who asked not to be quoted by name because he was discussing a personnel issue, said of Benz: "She'll be disciplined."

The fight and its aftermath underscore the school system's balancing act in dealing with socioeconomic extremes and simmering racial antipathies. Relations have been historically strained between some at Churchill, a college-preparatory powerhouse, and those in Scotland, a close-knit, multigenerational community off Seven Locks Road. Of the 2,167 students at Churchill, 6.6 percent are black. Not all live in Scotland.

Montgomery police say the 54 MOB gang has a dozen active members and has been linked to narcotics violations, robberies and assaults. Parents and Scotland community leaders disagree: 54 MOB, they say, is merely a group of young men from Scotland who dress in red and black, the colors of their Michael Jordan sneakers, and play on the last two digits of their Potomac ZIP code.

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