Race Report Finds Many Blacks Feel Unwelcome

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

An internal report on race relations at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, where the principal made controversial remarks after a campus fight last winter, concludes that many in the black community have long found the institution and its predominantly white staff "the opposite of welcoming."

The report, released yesterday, finds a belief among black families, particularly in the historically black Scotland enclave, that they are not wanted on campus. Black students say they are subject to prejudice from teachers, who the students say assume that they have not completed homework or that they are in need of clothing and food. Parents cite a chilly reception in the front office and say they have to convince teachers and administrators that their children are smart enough for Churchill.

Although much of the Churchill community finds the school culture welcoming and the curriculum rigorous, a significant number of families believes "that the expectations for them are not high and their performance [is] predetermined," according to the eight-page report, produced by a 30-person work group representing a cross section of the school community.

The group recommends dozens of reforms, including a stronger minority presence in the front office, a school ombudsman for racial issues and a tool for submitting feedback on the school Web site.

The work group and its report came in response to a January incident that divided much of the Churchill community along lines of race, class and perceived allegiance to the school. A simmering feud led to a fight Jan. 3 among 10 Churchill students, all of them black. The next day, Principal Joan Benz sent a letter home that stated that "every incident revolving around this two-month ordeal has been Black-on-Black violence."

Her comments incensed black parents at Churchill both inside and outside the Scotland community, which is home to many of the students involved in the fight. They said they believed the letter was an attempt to calm a mostly white parent community. The incident prompted the formation of the advisory committee, which met from February to June to interview members of the campus community and propose solutions.

"It was an explicit discussion of race and its impact on the community and climate of Churchill," said Lori-Christina Webb, a central office administrator who led the group with Benz.

Webb said the meetings exposed "starkly different experiences in the same community" in how students and parents interact with the staff of Churchill. Two students said their Spanish teacher always made them come to the front of the class and produce their homework, something she never asked of white students. Another student remarked, "They don't think that all black people are stupid or dumb, but I think if you're black, you have to prove that you're smart."

Tina Owens, the mother of a Churchill student who was involved in the January fight, said the recommendations did not go far enough; she would prefer that Benz be removed. "She created the environment," Owens said.

Benz said the school has established an action plan to address the top recommendations, which deal mostly with improving communication between staff and the larger school community.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company