In suburban Howard County, known for its racial diversity and tolerance, two Laurel women walked out of their town homes yesterday and found a scorched wooden cross sticking out of the ground. Their car tires were slashed as well.

The women discovered the cross, which stood between their homes, about 8:30 a.m. as they were taking their children to school. It was the second cross-burning incident in Howard County this year.

The latest incident happened just outside Columbia, in the 10600 block of Glen Hannah Drive, which is virtually next to Hammond elementary and middle schools. It is a middle-class neighborhood where children play in the street and leave their bicycles unattended outside without fear of theft.

Police said they do not have any leads on who committed the crime and are investigating it as a "hate-biased incident," spokesman David Proulx said.

Officers will be passing out fliers today asking for help in identifying who did it and have offered a $300 reward for any information that leads to an arrest.

"Clearly the cross symbolizes a hate bias," Proulx said. "That in itself is a symbol like a swastika."

The victims -- a white woman and a black woman -- both declined to give their names to a reporter, saying they feared for their safety.

"I don't know what the motive was for this crime," said one woman, who had two slashed tires. "I don't want to be a target."

Then she showed some of her neighbors a small rectangular hole in the ground where the three-foot cross stood, below a cluster of towering pine trees and next to a parking lot.

The cross was visible from the front door of the woman with two slashed tires. She said she noticed the first tire, on the rear passenger side, Wednesday night about 6:15 after her son heard a hissing noise coming from the car. Her husband changed the tire, she said.

In the morning when she was on her way to take her children to school, she said, she saw that the front one had been damaged as well. That was when she noticed the cross and that her neighbor's car also had a slashed tire.

Both women said they have not experienced any racial tension in the area.

Jennifer Clements, 23, who lives in the neighborhood, said she believes someone from outside the community committed the crime.

"I don't think it was anyone in this neighborhood," she said. "It's too diverse here. Everyone gets along with everyone."

Another neighbor, Maggie Kazem, 44, who moved to the area from Tennessee three months ago, said the incident shocked her because she thought she was moving to a safe area.

"I moved here because it was a nicer neighborhood," she said. "Now I don't know if it is safe. I don't know if I will stay."

Proulx also said the incident is unusual for Howard.

"I wouldn't say we're having a problem here," he said.

But Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said the racially tinged incident did not surprise him.

"Of course there's racial tension in Howard County," Howell said. "Especially given all the hate that has been generated across the country during the election. Given all the bitterness, I'm not surprised."

In July, a 12-foot cross was scorched on the lawn at the home of a high-ranking black Howard County public schools official who was implicated and then cleared in a grade-fixing scandal.