Montgomery County Public Schools officials on Thursday unveiled what they called a “comprehensive plan” to curb hate and bias in the district’s 208 schools.
The plan focuses on greater availability of mental health services for students affected by hate or bias and creating an online form for students and parents to report bullying.
It also calls for more interaction with the community following bias incidents, according to Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight.
“We don’t want there to be anything that impedes students’ and parents’ and community members’ ability to be able to report,” McKnight said of the online form, which will be available by the end of the school year.
The new plan comes amid a “surge” in bias incidents across the county, McKnight said. She did not elaborate, but when asked by Bethesda Beat, MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said there have been several acts of anti-Semitism and racism across the county.
Specifically, there have been several swastikas found drawn on school equipment at Silver Creek Middle School and “N-word” scrawlings in bathrooms at Parkland Middle School, Onijala said.
Hate and bias acts can be based on a person’s race, ancestry, religion, sex, gender identity, socioeconomic status, immigration status or marital status, McKnight said.
In 2018, there were 23 bias incidents reported at or near public schools in Montgomery County, according to a report from the county police department. Most happened at high schools.
Through a $110,000 grant from the Maryland State Department of Education, MCPS plans to launch Project Interrupt, a training program for staff, students and community members to prevent and respond to bias and hate incidents. It will be rolled out in school clusters with “a significant number of incidents,” McKnight said. She did not say which clusters. Onijala said those decisions are pending.
Staff members from various departments in the school district’s central office in Rockville will “huddle frequently” to review data about bias incidents and “map out clear action steps” to respond, McKnight said. Sometimes, that action will include reaching out to community groups, parents and parent-teacher associations to inform them and involve them in the recovery process, McKnight said.
“These are just some highlights of the additional steps we are taking as a system … to ensure all students have a safe and welcoming learning environment,” McKnight said. “I’m confident that in working together in the community, we will see significant improvement in our district.”
MCPS’ policy says “discrimination in any form will not be tolerated” because it impedes the school district’s ability to educate students.
It says achieving equity “requires proactive steps to identify and redress implicit biases” and that “continued vigilance is necessary to end identified inequities that students and staff experience because of their actual or perceived personal characteristics.”
In a statement on Thursday, the Jewish Community Relations Council wrote that it supports the new MCPS initiative. The council, along with community groups such as Identity and the Black and Brown Coalition and the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, helped develop the hate and bias plan.
“MCPS recognizes that we cannot allow swastikas, harassment and bullying of Jewish students, or any kind of hatred, to be normalized in our schools,” the statement said. “Hate doesn’t disappear overnight — it takes hard work to build a culture of mutual respect.”
Superintendent Jack Smith on Thursday said the district must address hate and bias, but it’s also important to remember there are thousands of students “doing good things.”
“As I walk through schools almost every week, (students) show up and treat each other very, very well,” Smith said. “They do very good things for one another and for our community. Sometimes people do what they should do, and sometimes they don’t and that’s just what happens in society and in our community. At the same time, we need to give credit to the many, many students who do, every day, treat people the right way.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org