Four school board members have urged the leader of a suburban Maryland school system to publicly apologize for his administration’s efforts to stop two students from speaking at one graduation and bar a school board member from the stage at another.
In a letter last week addressed to Kevin M. Maxwell, chief executive of Prince George’s County schools, the four board members described the events at Oxon Hill and Potomac high schools last week as “shocking and appalling.”
The conflict began May 31, when board member Edward Burroughs III attended the Oxon Hill graduation as a speaker and tried to turn over part of his allotted time to the presidents of the school’s senior class and student government. The two student leaders had not been designated as speakers.
School district officials cut the microphone off when one of the students began to speak, and Burroughs was stopped again later during the program when he made a second effort to involve them. As the incident unfolded, one student broke into tears.
District officials later said that they told Burroughs in advance that he could not cede his time to the students. Burroughs, in turn, said the only thing he heard came from a deputy superintendent who made a vague comment to him, as he walked on stage, about the program remaining “as is.”
“Consider this a Letter of Rebuke from us to you,” the board members wrote to Maxwell. “At the very least, a public apology is warranted to Mr. Burroughs and the two senior student leaders at Oxon Hill High School.”
The letter was signed by board members David Murray, Raaheela Ahmed and Beverly Anderson as well as student member Juwan Blocker. Those four and Burroughs hold five of the 14 seats on a board that sets policy and oversees the budget for the 132,000-student system. Maxwell, as chief, was selected by the county executive. The board is a hybrid of elected and appointed leaders under an unusual governing arrangement spelled out in a state law that gives the county executive more influence than in other Maryland districts.
School system officials said this week that Maxwell had received the letter and that he had no comment on it.
The graduation conflict is the latest flare-up between Maxwell and Burroughs over a range of issues, including last year’s string of child-abuse scandals. Burroughs has questioned Maxwell’s effectiveness and called for his resignation. Critics have accused Burroughs of seeking the media spotlight and being divisive.
The letter from his four colleagues also singled out Deputy Superintendent Monique Davis, saying she “not only overstepped her authority by restricting Mr. Burroughs, but she also traumatized two graduating senior student leaders on stage by scolding them publicly – to the point of tears.”
It went on to describe how Burroughs was barred from the stage and a backstage area at Potomac High’s commencement the next day. The school is in his district, and Burroughs said he showed up intending to sit with other dignitaries on stage but not have a speaking role.
Burroughs posted video clips of his encounter with the school system’s chief operating offficer, Wesley Watts, and later with park and planning police and school security officers. As he pressed the issue, an officer told him that he would be arrested for trespassing if he went on stage.
The letter questioned Maxwell’s authority to keep a board member offstage at a graduation and to direct police to take action. The two-page document was first reported by WUSA9.
“We were insulted by the threat of Mr. Burroughs being arrested if he proceeded to join his peer on the platform,” the letter said. “Using armed police to discipline an elected official is unprecedented, excessive and unwarranted.”
Burroughs said Thursday that Davis has since apologized in a phone call but that he has not heard from Maxwell. “I was surrounded by police like a criminal, and Dr. Maxwell had no authority to do that,” he said. “That was a grave abuse of power.”
School district officials said Davis had spoken to Burroughs but would not characterize it as an apology.
Last week, school district officials said that because of the events at Oxon Hill, officials were concerned about a disruption at the Potomac High graduation. Maxwell made the decision to deny Burroughs’s request to be onstage, officials said.
According to board policy, the board’s chairman has the authority to assign a board member to such functions as graduations. The policy does not discuss whether additional board members may join dignitaries on stage.
The four board members elaborated on that question in their letter.
“Board practice allows for other board members to be platform guests at any graduations of their choosing,” the letter said. “Under no known authority can the CEO or his designee stop board members from being platform guests.”
Segun Eubanks, chairman of the school board, said Friday that board members are invited to attend graduations as guests onstage months in advance. Last-minute requests, he said, are granted by the board’s chairman and the district’s administration. What happened at Oxon Hill “certainly was a factor” in the decision about access for Burroughs at Potomac, he said. Graduations should be about “the incredible achievements of our kids,” he said.
Board member Curtis Valentine apologized to the students on a recent radio program. In an interview with The Washington Post, he reiterated his regret for “any confusion or disruption to their ceremony. . . based on the actions of a board member who was acting outside the confines of graduation protocols” about who gets to speak. “You don’t want students to have to go through that,” he said.