Community Update6: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

From the Desk of Ralph Grunewald, Executive Director

Readers may recall my June 2018 “Community Update,” in which I upbraided the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS). I cited the laggard response to several troubling anti-Semitic incidents in a county middle school, where a student was repeatedly taunted for being Jewish and eventually left the public school system. I also noted the report of anti-Semitic graffiti at Glenelg High School and the growing trend of intolerance in our nation.  

My message listed actions the Jewish Federation of Howard County and its Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) urged and expected HCPSS would take moving forward. We advocated for the adoption of anti-bias K-12 curricula and for the K-12 curriculum review committee to invite members who are sensitive to the concerns of the Jewish community. We also advocated that similar individuals serve on HCPSS’s diversity, equity, and inclusion advisory committee and that steps be taken to promote greater respect for diversity in the music, arts, and other departments. We also urged the HCPSS to seek additional input from various ethnic, racial, and faith groups.

We must give credit where credit is due. By and large, our recommendations – which were also promoted by some like-minded ethnic and faith organizations – were adopted.

I can now report that HCPSS Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano has forcefully embraced a school culture that will not tolerate bias, xenophobia, hatred, and anti-Semitism. He is ably supported by two senior colleagues, Dr. Kevin Gilbert, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and Dr. Monifa McKnight, Chief School Management and Instructional Leadership Officer.

Since last June, the Jewish Federation, JCRC, and local rabbis have met on numerous occasions with these senior administrators and others within HCPSS. Due to our work – and the willingness on their part to do the right thing – a very clear message has been sent to every principal within our 77 local schools: HCPSS will not tolerate acts of hatred and anti-Semitism, and conversely, HCPSS will seek to inculcate a culture of tolerance and respect for all its students, faculty, and employees. 

A recent example occurred on January 17, when Superintendent Martirano sent an important message to the community referencing a swastika and male genitalia that were created in the snow on the field hockey field at Howard High School. This came on the heels of similar messages from several principals who responded forcefully to acts of bias and hatred in their schools.

The Jewish Federation and JCRC are encouraged by these proactive steps, though there is still work to be done. But you can be certain: we will continue to monitor hate crimes and similar situations when they arise, which they undoubtedly will. We will continue to engage with Dr. Martirano and his colleagues in the coming months whenever the need arises.

Meanwhile, Dr. Martirano is to be commended for focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion in his FY 2020 budget proposal, particularly with the additional funding for professional positions that will advance this agenda. We applauded these efforts in our testimony before the Board of Education on January 15. After having personally spoken with Dr. Martirano and learned about his personal experiences and commitment, we are optimistic that he is determined to protect every student from bias, hatred, and intolerance.  

I invite you to read our testimony, which appears below. I also encourage you to contact members of the Board of Education and Dr. Martirano to voice your support for his initiative. Eventually the County Council and the County Executive must also approve the budget; they too will require encouragement to provide the funds for these inclusion and tolerance initiatives.

TESTIMONY

BY JEWISH FEDERATION OF HOWARD COUNTY 
AND THE JEWISH COMMUNITY RELATIONS COUNCIL OF HOWARD COUNTY

BEFORE THE 

HOWARD COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION
REGARDING SUPERINTENDENT MICHAEL MARTIRANO’S 
PROPOSED FY 2020 OPERATING BUDGET

JANUARY 15, 2019


To the Members of the Howard County Board of Education:

The Jewish Federation of Howard County (JFHC) and its Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) are pleased to join you this evening to support Superintendent Martirano’s proposal in his FY 2020 Operating Budget for an increase of approximately $400,000 for the enhancement of HCPSS’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.  

The Jewish Federation raises funds and delivers services to meet the human needs of the local Jewish community and of fellow Jews in Israel and world-wide. It promotes Jewish identity and builds Jewish community in Howard County. Its JCRC strengthens ties with the broader local community – especially religious, social service, interfaith, government and racial and ethnic organizations. 

Over history – and sadly even today – Jews have been the target of hatred, xenophobia, bigotry, violence, and genocide. Though the Holocaust was the most tragic manifestation of anti-Semitism in the history of mankind, history books are filled with recitations of Jewish suffering and death during the past 2,000 years.  

Anti-Semitism still exists in the US, too. The killings at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October are the most recent reminder that anti-Jewish bias continues on many levels. But the victims of hate crimes are not limited to Jews. Our nation still struggles with the dark shadow of the Jim Crow era and with bias against immigrants. We need only recall the recent tragedy in Charlottesville to remind us that much work needs to be done to overcome prejudice and fear of “the other.”  

Hatred of Jews throughout generations has resulted in a Jewish hyper-sensitivity whenever and wherever hatred, bias, and intolerance exist, no matter who the victims are. Over time, Jews have developed a special ear for such acts of intolerance and injustice. 

Our faith implores us to accept all human beings as b’tselem Elohim – that all human beings are created in the image of G-d. This fundamental tenet of our faith requires us to protect the life of every person and ensure dignity and justice for all people.

Unfortunately, Howard County is not immune to acts of intolerance, hatred, and bias. So, too, our schools are also not immune. We have had too many examples of students whose words and deeds have resulted in pain and suffering. These students, in part, are a product of parents and communities who have failed to instill the essential values of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion. But these students also sadly reflect the times in which we live and the political and cultural climate of America in 2019.

But where parents and communities fail, it is incumbent that our schools take the lead in infusing these essential values.

Over the past year, and in response to several acts of anti-Semitism against HCPSS students, the Jewish Federation and the JCRC have met repeatedly with senior administrators. In one case, a Jewish middle-schooler left the school system for fear of further verbal abuse.  

During this period, we worked closely with Dr. Kevin Gilbert, director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and his colleagues. We urged then, and continue to urge now, for the following goals:

educate and hold accountable teachers and administrators to ensure consistent and system-wide observance of the current equity absence policy so that minority students are not intimidated or penalized for desiring to observe their holy days as permitted by HCPSS policy;
review and revise HCPSS policies to better protect victims of discriminatory bullying and hate crimes, and to educate the perpetrators; and
initiate a mandatory K-12 anti-bias curriculum (including a mandatory Holocaust education component) as part of the larger effort to make the HCPSS curriculum more inclusive, equitable, and respectful and reflective of diversity, including in arts and music education

After numerous conversations, we are still working towards achieving these goals. However, we are pleased about the commitment to the immutable values of diversity, equity, and inclusion on the part of not only Dr. Gilbert, but also Superintendent Martirano. We are heartened by the determination among HCPSS leaders to infuse these values on a number of levels – beginning in our 20 middle schools, where notions of fairness, tolerance, and respect for others are honed in the formative minds of these students.

The commitment to these values is manifest in the proposed FY 2020 budget request. Specifically, Dr. Martirano seeks:

  • 2 Restorative Justice Coordinator positions in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, in Dr. Gilbert’s office, to bolster the fine work that is done there, and 
  • 1 Director of Equity Initiatives for School Leadership position in the Office of School Management and Instructional Leadership, in the office headed by Dr. Monifa McKnight, with whom we have also met. This position will collaborate with the Dr. Gilbert’s office to ensure that all professional teachings are aligned for teachers and administrators.

The Jewish Federation and the JCRC know the task is great – but the time is now to provide the critical funds needed. There are many obstacles in developing a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout our 77 schools; there are challenges in raising the consciences of 56,000 students, as well as almost 9,000 employees.

We are pleased this budget emphasizes priorities that include building a more culturally diverse curriculum, providing all staff with robust professional development in cultural proficiency, and increasing the level of diversity among HSPSS staff. We also strongly support the Superintendent’s new Advisory Group on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It brings a wide range of voices among our community, staff, and students to inform decisions and strategies. Among its members are representatives of the Jewish Federation and the JCRC.

But there is no doubt: the current staffing levels and resources that are available fall far short.  

We urge the Board of Education – and ultimately the County Executive and County Council – to adopt the Superintendent’s budget proposals. Our goal should be to propel the HCPSS as the national leader in the teaching and transmission of these elemental democratic values. They are values fundamental to our nation. As enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, “all Men are created equal.” You have the opportunity with the adoption of this request to ensure that Howard County schools will be a beacon of tolerance and civility.

Thank you for this opportunity to appear before you.


Respectfully submitted by:

Betsy Singer Marcus, Chair
On behalf of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Howard County

Ralph Grunewald, Executive Director
On behalf of the Jewish Federation of Howard County

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