The article "Lawn Cross, Tensions Remain" in the July 15 Howard Extra incorrectly characterized the controversy surrounding Kimberly Statham, the school system's chief academic officer, who was accused and later exonerated of using her position to alter her daughter's academic record. The article should have made clear that no grade was ever changed. (Published 7/22/04)
The cross was still there this week, a 12-foot swath of scorched grass on the otherwise immaculate front lawn of Kimberly A. Statham, one of Howard County's top school officials.
Statham, who is black, has been at the center of controversy after she was implicated, and later exonerated, in a grade-fixing scandal at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. Police officials said they have not been able to link the cross-shaped burn, which was discovered last week, to the racial tensions over the grade-fixing incident.
For some black parents and school officials, it is a sign that the controversy might be far from over.
"Before this happened, I would have at least hoped that things would have calmed down," said Robert Gordon, secretary of the Parents Council of Black Students at Centennial. "But this incident shows that clearly it hasn't."
Police did not have any suspects in the case as of late Tuesday and are offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest, spokesman David Proulx said. The FBI is testing the soil to determine what chemicals were used to scorch the cross into the lawn of the Stathams' home on New Forest Court in Ellicott City, Proulx said.
He said most weedkillers take effect after about 72 hours. Statham's husband and her two teenage children discovered the cross July 7 and called police.
Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay and county NAACP President Jenkins Odoms Jr. immediately denounced the incident as a hate crime and said it was not representative of Howard County, home to the racially and economically diverse community of Columbia.
For some, the incident at the Statham home seemed to culminate months of bad blood within the Centennial community.
"We raised the issue of racism being maybe a motivator," Gordon said. "This just confirms it."
In December, an anonymous e-mail accused Statham, then deputy superintendent, and Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett of using their positions to alter a failing grade for Statham's daughter, who was a student at Centennial. The e-mail also alleged that Statham had asked Plunkett to help her change her daughter's transcript to show that the teenager had dropped a course rather than withdrawn from it. Colleges typically view a dropped course more favorably.
Then-Superintendent John O'Rourke hired a private investigator, who spent nearly three months looking into the matter. In February, just days before he resigned as head of the county's schools, O'Rourke demoted the two officials.
The Howard County Board of Education reversed that decision in May after Statham and Plunkett appealed, setting off a firestorm of criticism. Statham was subsequently named the system's chief academic officer.
A heated meeting last month between board members and Centennial parents and teachers lasted nearly 31/2 hours and was highlighted by racial tensions. During testimony by the handful of black parents who attended, some white parents left the room. One man passed out copies of a scathing letter to board members that likened the issue to the O.J. Simpson trial.
School officials had hoped that such high emotions would subside as the school year ended last month. Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin has named a new principal to the school, Scott Pfeifer, who is well liked across the county and had led River Hill High School in Clarksville since it opened. Gordon said that Pfeifer met with Centennial's black parents several weeks ago and that Pfeifer is planning a leadership meeting before school begins in August to discuss ways to improve communication.
After black parents voiced concerns over what they felt was an unfriendly climate at Centennial, the school brought in a private consultant to work with students and staff to identify problems and solutions, school board Chairman Courtney Watson said. Several teachers also volunteered to attend workshops about interacting with people from different backgrounds.
Yet the grade-changing still rankles Centennial parents and staff. In June, staff members circulated a letter criticizing Statham's reinstatement and questioning the board's support for teachers. Then, in a letter to the editor last month in The Washington Post, school board member James O'Donnell said that "ill-founded rumors about the appeal evidence and process have also caused misunderstanding." In a subsequent letter, Statham said that the past few months had been a "nightmare" for her and her family and that a small group of disgruntled teachers had waged a "campaign of retaliation" against her.
Meanwhile, the cross incident has reverberated outside the county. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who was at Cradlerock School in Columbia for a news conference about early childhood education Monday, said she was stunned by the incident.
"It's frightening for the community and for that family," Grasmick said.
The incident has also prompted calls to school system staff and board members from across Howard.
"It is a community issue, and it shows that Howard County isn't necessarily immune to the problems we find throughout society," Watson said.
Staff writer Susan DeFord contributed to this report.