Damaging Words

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

WHAT IS MOST troubling about recent events at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac is not that some students got into a fight over a girl or that the principal wrote a spectacularly stupid memo. The real problem is that some students don't see themselves as part of the mainstream of the prestigious high school. It's time for Montgomery County officials to figure out a way to deal with the issues of race and class that fuel those feelings and that helped cause the current ugliness.

Churchill rightfully prides itself on the stellar academic achievements of its students, but the spotlight in recent days has been on a letter that Principal Joan C. Benz sent home to parents. Its aim was to explain the circumstances of a school fight last week. Ms. Benz had the bad judgment to write, "Every incident revolving around this two month ordeal has been Black-on-Black violence" and then, to make the point that this was a case of a few bad apples, she cited the rising test scores of African American students.

Chastised by higher-ups, Ms. Benz quickly apologized, but the damage was done. The community finds itself split between those who see Ms. Benz as a victim of political correctness and those offended by her insensitivity. Last fall, two teenagers who go to Churchill made headlines when they forged notes from home to free themselves to commit burglaries. Just as there was no reason to discuss their race, there was no reason to bring race into this report on the fight. Unless, of course, it was a subconscious way to reassure the mostly white parent populace that indeed the school is still safe for their children. We wish that people who see nothing wrong with Ms. Benz's words would try to imagine how they would feel as parents of an accomplished student who was linked by race with troublemakers.

Ms. Benz is a dedicated and talented educator whose 10 years at Churchill have helped it achieve state designation as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. That she felt, as she has said, that she made the racial reference to rebut horrid, racist remarks from some Churchill parents and students gives powerful credence to the complaints of African Americans about being marginalized. So, too, does the fact that Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and his administration were caught unawares by the tensions at the school, even though, as The Post's Daniel de Vise and Lori Aratani reported, the complaints of the small African American community have been longstanding.

Mr. Weast needs to grapple with this issue; it is encouraging that he is putting together a working group to study the situation at Churchill. As painful as this episode has been, it was a needed wake-up call for a county that prides itself on being inclusive.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company