- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
About 60 people attended a St. Mary’s school board meeting Wednesday to express their outrage after a student fashioned a noose out of a rope at Leonardtown High School last week and held it up to taunt a group of black students.
Students involved were suspended for harassment after the Feb. 22 incident, according to Superintendent Michael Martirano.
The St. Mary’s County chapter of the NAACP helped organize the showing Wednesday evening, but others showed up after news of the incident spread during the last week. Some speakers were displeased at the school’s response to the incident.
The school posted a letter on its website from Principal Maureen Montgomery and gave copies to students two days after the incident.
The letter, which referred only to a “racially baiting interaction,” did not mention the word “noose” and was centered on students’ use of social media after the incident and a fight that broke out the next day as a result of that, some in attendance Wednesday night said, instead of the incident itself.
Wayne Scriber, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said hate crimes like the one at Leonardtown High School last week are appalling and that they too often go underreported or unreported. He said the school system played down the incident by avoiding using the word “noose,” not calling the incident racism and not issuing a stronger condemnation.
Scriber commended the student who turned in the noose, saying, “He did his part and we ask ... you need to do your part.”
A mother of one of the students who witnessed the noose said that “in his eyes, it was very offensive, it was very harmful.”
She said the school system needs to take responsibility for the incident and call it what it was — a noose, not “a manipulated rope. If somebody brought a pretend gun to school, it wouldn’t be treated as if it was not real. This needs to be treated the same way,” she said.
Martirano gave a detailed account of what happened at LHS during the last week before the public comment. “The best way to address it is not to run away but to run toward and run closely and address it head on,” he said, adding that he does condemn racial incidents and that the school system deals with such issues aggressively.
Just before 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, between the seventh and eighth class periods, a Leonardtown High student took a piece of rope that had been used to practice tying knots for a fire and rescue program and “fashioned the rope into what appeared to be a noose,” Martirano said.
Another boy took the noose and held it up in a taunting fashion while looking at a small group of black students standing across the hall, Martirano said. One of those students came over and took the rope, flinging it over a bannister to a hallway below.
A few minutes later an African-American boy recovered the rope and took it to the office, where he turned it over to a secretary.
No actual physical fights occurred that day, Martirano said, and that afternoon, once school was dismissed, administrators reviewed surveillance of the hall and determined who was responsible for manipulating the rope into a noose and holding it up.
The students’ parents were called and told to come to school the next morning, where conferences were held and suspensions doled out. Three white students were suspended, including the one who manipulated the rope into a noose, the one who held it up and another who was involved in the incident, Martirano said.
Early the next morning, an unrelated fight broke out at the school that had to do with “teenage dating” and discussions and remarks made on social media, Martirano said. Two students were suspended. “The social media networks are killing us,” Martirano said.
A short while later that morning, a fight between a black student and a white student broke out and punches were thrown, he said.
This fight was a result of the noose incident and continued nighttime chatter about the incident online, Martirano said. Both of those students were suspended.
On Friday, teachers, administrators and extra resource officers from the sheriff’s department were at the school to patrol hallways. No incidents were reported, Martirano said.
“Some people come from environments where tolerance is not the expectation and racism is still alive,” Martirano said.
When students bring that intolerance into schools through acts of hate, they will be aggressively dealt with, the superintendent said.
In addition to the suspensions, the students involved with the racial incident will be put into mediation, he said.
“I need the help of all parents and community members,” he said. “Schools cannot address every issue alone.”
“The incident that took place robs all of us and is unacceptable. Not in my country,” Bob Morehouse said during public comment. He said the school board and other school officials should have come out from the start and strongly condemned the incident.
One woman recalled hearing as a young child her mother tell a story about a lynching in their family and how that story stuck with her. “I thought, how did these children feel when the saw that” noose last week, she said.
Ceandra Scott said that her daughter, who attends Leonardtown High, had told her about previous “little acts of intimidation,” such as a student calling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a “troublemaker.”
She said she spoke to a school board member about this issue a week before the noose incident.
“I would not classify racism as bullying. It is much stronger than that,” Scott said.
Shannon Demehri, student board member and Leonardtown senior, said she is aware of other racial incidents and comments made at the school, but none as blatant as the noose. “It makes me sad when a student doesn’t respect another,” she said during a break in the meeting Wednesday evening. Demehri commended the school principal’s response to the issue and said the school was calmed by last Friday.