When Carie Palmer sent two of her children to South River High School in Anne Arundel County, she envisioned them getting a top-quality education in idyllic surroundings.
Swastikas, racist graffiti and neo-Nazi fliers were never part of that picture.
But Palmer's daughter, Rachel, 17, and oldest son, Jordan, 16, have been exposed to all of the above at South River this year. In recent weeks, five students have been arrested and charged with hate crimes for spray painting pro-Ku Klux Klan messages in school stairwells and putting neo-Nazi fliers on cars in the parking lot.
Anne Arundel police continue to investigate those and other incidents, which have led to at least two dozen suspensions and four students leaving South River, and county school Superintendent Eric J. Smith has announced various efforts to teach tolerance. "I feel hopeful that changes will be made," Carie Palmer said, "but not within the period of time where my children will be in school."
School officials caution against a rush to judgment, saying ignorant teenage pranks sometimes are rooted in immaturity more than deep-seated racism. Still, reports of racist graffiti and fliers at the 1,991-student high school have packed a symbolic punch in a community that has worked hard to move beyond its past.
While it took Anne Arundel's school system 14 years to desegregate after the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, some community leaders say significant progress in race relations has been made in recent years. The county school board now has three black members, the most in its history. Annapolis High School, which used to average 50 expulsions a year because of fights between black and white students, hosts an annual beach outing called "TEAM Day." It brings students of all races together to sing and dance in ways so universally embarrassing, they can't help but feel a new connection. Last year, expulsions from fights dropped to 11.
But for many, the progress makes the lingering problems all the more glaring.
Smith's predecessor, Carol S. Parham, who is black, received racially tinged death threats in 2000 after she suggested busing students from the majority-white Mayo Elementary School, which was being renovated, to an empty wing at the majority-black Annapolis Middle School. A statue of Aris T. Allen, the first African American to represent the county in the state legislature, was vandalized twice in recent years, once with a noose around its neck, another time with Confederate flags duct-taped to its hands.
In March of this year, some residents of southern Anne Arundel voiced opposition to plans by Sojourner-Douglass College to open a satellite campus next to South River High. A majority of the college's students are black, which caused supporters of the plan to question whether the complaints were racially motivated; opponents said, however, that traffic and land-use concerns were their sole motivation.
"As far as racism, I think we have a long ways, a lot of improvement to do," said Classie Hoyle, an Annapolis City alderman (D), who is black.
Anne Arundel is a county of stark contrasts. Affluent waterfront communities abut blue-collar towns. The quaint brick streets of downtown Annapolis are just blocks from the faded asphalt that leads to rows of subsidized housing complexes. But within these contrasts, there is not much racial diversity: More than 80 percent of the county's residents are white, according to the 2000 Census, while African Americans, at 14 percent, represent the largest minority.
Carie Palmer moved to Crofton, 14 miles west of Annapolis, two years ago after separating from her husband. She said she felt that Anne Arundel would provide a comfortable environment for their three children. Now, she is not sure.
"Where are these great strides?" asked Palmer, whose daughter, Rachel, cried tears of anger after smelling the fresh spray paint that someone used to write a racial slur in a South River stairwell in March. "I didn't think as a parent I would ever have to deal with this."
On March 13, Rachel, whose mother is white and father is black, stood at the door of her fourth-period American government class, waiting to be dismissed by the bell. Instead, an announcement came over the loudspeakers telling students that the bell wouldn't ring for another few minutes. Puzzled, Rachel, the only student of color in the room, quizzed a classmate who had just returned from the school's main office. The student whispered in Rachel's ear: Somebody wrote "Niggers Die" in the stairwell.
"I just looked at her," said Rachel, who lived in majority-black Prince George's County before moving to Anne Arundel. "I didn't have tears in my eyes, but I was mad."
Rachel said that by the time she walked to the stairwell minutes later, the graffiti had been covered up with yellow construction paper. Still, she could make out traces of the message. They didn't even spell the N-word right, she thought to herself, before heading to the cafeteria, where she located her regular table of mostly black friends and began to cry.
School officials say they had known some level of racial unrest existed among the school's students, of which 93 percent are white and 4 percent are black. Earlier in the school year, there were some fights and name-calling incidents after a small group of white students wore Confederate flag clothing to school and black students retaliated with homemade T-shirts that read "The Confederacy Ended."
Hoping to address the tensions, school officials began a Climate Committee in November, a way for students and parents from different backgrounds to get to know each other better. The committee planned a retreat similar to Annapolis High's "TEAM Day."
After the graffiti incident, the school sent a letter to parents detailing what happened. The county police department designated an officer to walk the halls at South River and added surveillance devices and increased patrols after school hours. "It's disturbing that any kids act like this," said Sam Salamy, assistant principal at South River. But, he added, "I don't know whether it means anything in regards to any particular region or county."
Smith, who became superintendent in July, called a news conference last month to say that intolerant behavior would be severely punished. A few weeks later, a group calling itself Parents Against Unlawful Harassment met with Smith to ask him to budget money for diversity education and to strive for a more diverse faculty.
The group of about a dozen South River parents, which now meets regularly to talk about race relations, left Smith's office feeling optimistic about the future.
Still, at a school board meeting last month, leaders from several African American groups urged Smith and the board to include community organizations in efforts to deal with racial strains -- particularly in Edgewater, where South River is located.
"Until all of the community comes forward to address this," school board member Anthony J. Spencer said, "we are going to keep having a problem."