Elected leaders in Maryland spoke out publicly Tuesday about a blackface incident involving students at one of Montgomery County’s highest-performing high schools, saying they were deeply troubled and would continue efforts to tackle racism.
The reaction followed a weekend incident involving two ninth-grade students at Walt Whitman High School, who posted an image of themselves in blackface on social media and used the n-word as they described the photo.
The incident drew wide attention after Principal Robert W. Dodd sent a letter home to parents Monday saying he had called police to help investigate. The image, widely seen by students, surfaced on Snapchat and was then shared on Twitter, officials said.
“I want to emphasize as strongly as possible that this type of behavior will not be tolerated at Walt Whitman High School,” Dodd said in the letter, adding that the students would receive significant disciplinary consequences.
Capt. Tom Jordan, a Montgomery County police spokesman, said Whitman’s school-based officer investigated the matter and documented it as “a bias-related incident.” The students’ actions were determined not to be criminal, he said.
Jordan said that in general, bias-related activity or speech must be linked to underlying criminal conduct — an assault, for example — for the incident to be considered a hate crime.
The racist incident was the latest of three reported this school year at the Bethesda school, one of Montgomery County’s least diverse high schools, with a student body that is 67 percent white, 15 percent Asian and 9 percent Hispanic. African American students account for 5 percent or less of enrollment.
The school was the subject of a book on overachievers and has often placed at or near the top of various rankings of public high schools in Maryland. It was listed among the top 100 high schools nationally in a U.S. News & World Report ranking this week.
The Montgomery County Council weighed in on the incident Tuesday. Council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) spoke for the group, calling the incident severely disturbing and insensitive.
“It is unfortunate for us to be in 2019 and these types of incidents are still happening,” Navarro said. “In light of this, it is imperative that we continue our work to engage in education and outreach to sensitize our residents on the harmful effects of racism on the residents of our communities.”
In recent weeks, Whitman had been at work on increasing racial understanding, officials said. Students from its Minority Scholars Program, a student-led group that works to foster academic success and leadership, have been giving presentations in math classes about the inequities and struggles that students of color face at the school. They also created a video that captured their experiences.
“The conversations in these initial sessions have been powerful,” Dodd said in his letter.
In late March, a student posted the n-word on an interactive classroom whiteboard that students were using as part of a lesson, according to a school letter that went home at the time.
The incident was captured on cellphone video and posted on social media, officials said. And earlier this school year, there was an incident at Whitman involving someone saying the racial epithet, said Montgomery County schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala.
Michael V. Williams, a longtime educator involved in efforts to improve opportunities for students of color across the county, said his students at Kennedy High School were upset by the blackface incident and started writing letters to say they don’t want the county to tolerate acts of hate.
“In essence, they see it as not simply a Whitman problem but a Montgomery County problem and want it addressed appropriately,” said Williams, co-founder of the Minority Scholars Program. “But all of us also believe that there is an opportunity for healing and learning. And we hope that it can be used as such.”
Another Montgomery high school, Winston Churchill High, in Potomac, drew attention in February after students gave out n-word “passes” that granted those who received them permission to use the racial slur.
Byron Johns, education chair of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, described the incident as offensive but “unfortunately more normalized” at a time of anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and racially charged rhetoric in daily life. “It’s part of the ether now,” he said.
Johns said it is important for educators and parents in the county’s least diverse schools to recognize that students of color are often “ignored and overlooked and not embraced as full members of the community — and to address it openly.”