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School turns strife into strides

May 01, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

GREENCASTLE, PA. - The school principal and some students say the atmosphere in Greencastle-Antrim High School is calm and friendly today compared to October, when racial issues flared up in the halls.

Things were so bad then, with white students making racial slurs against and threatening the handful of black students who attend the school, that one mother took her daughter out of class.

Criminal charges were filed against three white students as a result of the incidents, school Principal Bonnie Cornelious said, and three students were suspended.

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"Things are much more open-minded today," Cornelious said. "There's much better dialogue now."

Some of the white students accused in the incidents have, on their own, met with the black students they offended, she said.

Less than 1 percent of the 2,700 students in the Greencastle-Antrim School District are black and fewer than 10 black students attend the 850-student high school.

Wednesday afternoon, five students - three white, two black - talked about how things have changed since the October incidents.

The most serious incident involved threats to hang a black student's family, said Brittany Faulk, 16, a junior. She's been a student in the district since fourth grade.

Some white students tried to intimidate black students by screaming "white power" or whistling "Dixie" around them, she said.

"At first the administration downplayed the incidents but that changed as soon as some minority parents came to school to complain," Faulk said. "They took disciplinary action right away after that."

Administrators enforced the ban on showing or wearing Confederate flags and clothes with racial slogans, said Amber King, who is 16 and white. She said she and Faulk have been friends since middle school.

The administration put up posters around the building, slogans about tolerance and diversity on bulletin boards and teachers were given special training on handling racial issues by a representative from the Human Rights Commission, Cornelious said.

But the biggest changes came when Quay Hanna of Lancaster County, Pa., started to visit the school early this year. Considered an expert on issues of racial tension in schools, Cornelious described him as white and in his early 30s. Hanna could not be reached Wednesday.

Cornelious said Hanna made a turnabout in his own life of prejudice. His book, "Bus America, Revelation of a Redneck," takes a hard look at nonwhite America, said Ellen Kirkner, an 11th-grade civics teacher.

Hanna makes his living talking to students about racial issues. He charges $300 a visit, Cornelious said.

His visits to Greencastle included talks in classrooms and at a schoolwide assembly in the auditorium, Kirk-ner said.

"He's not like teachers. He's real open about things," King said.

The administration, on a request from Faulk, permitted a group of students to travel to a high school in Lancaster County to see firsthand a students' club where they discussed the racial problems in their school. Hanna set up the club.

"The school was 94 percent white and they had some severe racial problems three years ago before Quay started the club," Faulk said.

"A club like that is what I want for this school," she said. "It lets the kids discuss things that they can only ask about here."

"Teachers are afraid to get in serious discussions on racism," said Shamara Mitchell, 15, a sophomore.

Ken Rendel, 16, said most of the students who caused the trouble last fall are seniors. "They'll be graduating," he said.

"Then you've got to think about the eighth-graders who are coming up," Mitchell said.

"This has certainly raised my awareness," Cornelious said.

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