The new leaders of Montgomery County's police department and school system came to a special forum on race relations this week to discuss their views on a subject that has been a sore spot for their county agencies.
In recent weeks, Police Chief Charles A. Moose and School Superintendent Jerry Weast have been confronted with questions about how police and schools treat minorities in the county. Last month, African American and Hispanic parents expressed concern about the gap in achievement on college entrance exams between their children and white and Asian students. Last week, the police department received a report showing that fewer than 40 percent of the black people surveyed believe officers treat all ethnicities equally and fairly.
Neither man addressed the reports specifically at the day-long forum sponsored by the county's Human Relations Commission on Monday. But they gave their views on the state of race relations.
Having grown up in segregation-era North Carolina, Moose, 46, told the Rockville forum that as an African American, he clearly knew racism when he felt it.
"I knew where everyone stood," Moose said at the forum, held at the University of Maryland's Shady Grove Center. "But today's society is so unclear and vague. Everyone's so sophisticated that the racism's hidden."
Residents attending the meeting took turns voicing concern on issues such as multilingual education, the state of academic achievement among minority students and the need for greater minority access to credit.
Weast said one of his top concerns is the fact that the racial and ethnic diversity of the 131,000-student system isn't reflected among its 19,000 employees.
In Montgomery County, 48.1 percent of the school system's students are not white, compared with 18.1 percent of the system's teaching and non-teaching staff.
School systems nationwide are grappling to increase diversity among school personnel, Weast said.
But the problem will intensify, he warned, because fewer than 10 percent of "all people in the teaching pipeline are of any minority status."
The subject of academic achievement among minorities comes at a critical time for the system.
While the county's average Scholastic Assessment Test score is 1096 overall, the highest ever and well above the state average of 1014, the average score among Latino students has fallen to 973, down 22 points from the previous school year.
The average score for African American students last year rose three points, to 922.
But the plunging scores among Latino students have evoked angry calls from parents to bolster SAT preparation efforts for minority students.
Moose said he, too, is working to improve the diversity of his work force.
Panelists at Monday's forum included: George P. Dang, district manager of Equitable Financial Services Co.; Richard J. Ferrara, executive director of the Housing Opportunities Commission; Charlene R. Nunley, president of Montgomery College; Michael Rizer, senior vice president of First Union Bank; and Charles Short, director of Montgomery County's Department of Health and Human Services.
One man expressed concern that African Americans face tougher obstacles than newly arrived immigrants and other groups in their efforts to obtain small business loans from banks.
But Rizer said that should not be. Banks are barred by federal law from collecting race and gender data from applicants for small business loans, he said.
"We're in a very competitive business where we want to make loans where we can," Rizer said.
At another juncture in the conference, Moose told attendees that he has learned to deal with people who have "decided I'm a bad person because of the color of my skin."