Chestertown kicked off its regular town meeting Monday night with an hour-long discussion about racism as the town and Washington College addressed recent incidents of harassment of minority students.
Mayor Chris Cerino said he started the town meeting 30 minutes early because “I really wanted to make it a priority to talk about these recent incidents we’ve had on the college’s campus” and wanted to give the students a public forum to talk about their concerns with elected officials.
The college was having its own “town hall” meeting at 8 p.m. to discuss the incidents.
“I want these students to know and I want people of color in our community to know that these racist incidents, that were clearly meant to intimidate, are not acceptable to these elected officials,” Cerino said. “And we will do everything in our power to deal with this in a timely manner using any resources and whatever extent of the law the town can use.
“I want you guys to know that we support you, that we have your backs. I want you to understand that we are here to listen, we are here to hear your voices and we are taking this very seriously.
“These kinds of acts have no place, not only in Chestertown, but really in the whole county,” Cerino said. “The vast majority of the people in this community appreciate the fact that you guys are here, we appreciate the diversity the you bring to the community, we understand that you’re an incredible resource for us and also the college is a really important economic resource for the town and the county.
“Anything that puts a black eye on this community vis a vis the college is a loss for everybody,” he said. “So we really need to work together to address these concerns to the best of our abilities.”
Rev. Ellsworth Tolliver, the town’s Ward 3 councilman, said he “actually appreciated that these incidents occurred on the college campus because what has happened is it’s opened up the window to the lifestyle and the life that a black citizen of Chestertown and Kent County has to go under all the time.
“The college is a high-profile opportunity for those of us who are of color and women in Kent County to be able to say this is the life we have to live,” he said. “So now we’ve got an opportunity to bring people together, to really open up the dialogue and talk about what we can do to make change in this community.
“So I appreciate the opportunity that the Black Student Union has done in their efforts to open up the window, so to speak,” Tolliver said. “I appreciate those of you from the black community that are here but I’m saddened because I would like to see more of the black community involved in this type of forum and the opportunity to express themselves about the things that go on on a daily basis around here.”
Cerino asked Chestertown Police Chief John Dolgos to outline the incidents that had been reported on or near the campus between November and February and the town’s investigations of several of those.
Before doing so, the mayor noted that the college is private property and campus security is usually the primary responding agency to incidents on campus.
Security contacts town police if they need backup or want a deeper investigation.
The mayor also pointed out that not all bad actions meet the requirements for criminal charges.
“Sometimes acts that are morally despicable aren’t as illegal as maybe we think they should be,” Cerino said. “That’s the reality that I am living in when people talk about pressing charges.”
Dolgos said about a week after Nov. 11 he received a call from the college’s Public Safety office about a Nov. 11 incident in which someone yelled racial slurs at a black female student. The slur was yelled out the window of a white pickup truck that was being driven north on Route 213. Police did not further investigate that incident due to receiving the information several days after it allegedly occurred.
On Nov. 23, town police were told about a Nov. 22 incident in which one or more people in an SUV and a white pickup truck driving through campus yelled something out the window; however, what was yelled was not understandable by witnesses. As the vehicles continued through campus, a passenger in the pickup made racial slurs toward two black female students. Police investigated and referred one juvenile to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services for disturbing the peace and disrupting school activities.
On Feb. 16, town police got another call from public safety about a passenger yelling racial slurs from a vehicle, occupied by four white males, driving through campus. That case is still under investigation.
Public safety investigated another incident on Feb. 20; town police were informed the next day. The report was that a white pickup truck revved its engine as it was driven through the crosswalk on Route 213. No slurs were made and therefore it was not ruled as a racial incident.
Of the two incidents investigated by police, Dolgos said those were “isolated to a group of juveniles using very poor judgment” and there was no indication of any organization or groups being involved.
Washington College senior Paris Mercier, former president of the college’s Black Student Union, said she was pleased by the turnout at the meeting.
Mercier cited five “hate crimes” on campus since October and said those began with the cancellation of a student production of “The Foreigner.”
“From all different corners of Kent County, including media and those commenting on newspaper articles, black students were being told to go somewhere else if they felt unsafe and that the college wasn’t a place for safety,” Mercier said. “This was the start of a heightened sense of fear for all black students and other students of marginalized populations.
“It wasn’t too long before someone acted on the hate that they had expressed,” she said. “Since that first incident that was committed against students in October, black students have had to maintain a heightened sense of awareness when walking to and from any part of our campus once the sun goes down.
“There is a shared sense of trauma that has occurred within our community. Our anger and frustration that we are experiencing doesn’t end with the things that we are personally experiencing at Washington College but it extends to the students in the high school.
“It shouldn’t take incidents like this of hate to address the racism in our community,” Mercier said. “Incidents of race are not a problem that are just solely incubated on the campus of Washington College. While these incidents at the college are worthy of discussion, the incidents that are happening daily in our public schools deserve that same attention.
“Today we are not here to point the finger at the community. We are here to express the need of collaboration among the college, the college students and the local community,” she said.
“There is a lot of work to be done and it cannot happen without all of our hands and minds together. We cannot keep putting the children on the front lines to fight this battle alone. It’s time as adults that we all step in to protect them in the ways that they deserve to be protected.
“We implore the school system to listen without already having an answer,” Mercier said. “We implore the college to continue to open their doors to the idea of building bridges with the local schools to reconcile the crimes that have been committed and we implore all of those in attendance to stand with us as we do this.
“We all deserve safety. If you’re here because you recognize your privilege in this conversation then please use that privilege to advocate for the needs of those who may not have that same privilege.”
Washington College President Kurt Landgraf thanked town and county officials and police agencies for attending the meeting.
“… We’re all in this together,” he said.
Landgraf, who has been president for three years, said these incidents didn’t just start happening.
“This has been happening the entire three years that I’ve been here. Drivebys, people in pickup trucks screaming at our students, this is not something that just occurred,” he said. “It just has heightened (and) … it started to heighten after we had to cancel that play.
“The college and Chestertown have been together arm and arm since 1782,” Landgraf said. “When something good happens at the college, like building the buildings down here on the waterfront, it’s a good thing for Chestertown. And when something bad happens at the college, it’s a bad thing for Chestertown. We are one and the same. We are not separate entities.
“The thing I care about most is the safety of our students,” he said. “… (H)ere’s my greatest concern: When these things start to escalate, it’s not a long jump from words to physical violence. And that scares me beyond anything else because the safety of our students is my number one concern and has been since I’ve come here.
Landgraf said the college has made an effort to diversity and the student body is now about 20 percent persons of color. And for the college to continue to grow and survive, that diversity is critical.
Karen Couch, superintendent of Kent County Public Schools, said the conversation was important to the schools and the community at large.
“The administration and the Board of Education remains committed to the safety and well-being of our students,” Couch said. “We do not condone or excuse any form of racism or bullying in our schools and we remain committed to investigating reports made to the administration.
“I agree it was very disappointing to learn about the incident at Washington College,” she said. “But I also agree with Rev. Tolliver, it was an opportunity for us to examine all of our institutional practices and the things we are doing in our schools and what we can do better.
Robbi Behr spoke on behalf of the public school advocacy group Support Our Schools, which initially had asked Cerino for the Monday night discussion.
“First off, we want to say that we are sorry. We are sorry that this happened, we’re sorry that we have not done enough, we as a community have not done enough, to ensure that you feel safe and to ensure that all people of color feel safe in our community.
“We are grateful that you are willing to stand up and demand more from us,” Behr said. “You are correct, students should not be on the front lines of this fight. You have other work to do and you should be allowed to do your work in peace and to be able to do it within a place of safety.
She said such a close-knit community as Chestertown should be able to come together and find ways to treat each other with respect but warned there was no easy fix.
“This is a long-standing problem that goes back to the beginning of this country,” Behr said.
Chestertown resident Rebecca Murphy said she has personally experienced racism.
“It hasn’t been people throwing rocks at my house, it hasn’t been people driving by and saying awful things to me,” she said. “But it has been persistent and unpleasant and very difficult to to confront.
She commended the students who had become active on campus and who had attended the meeting to tell their stories and promised her assistance. She urged white residents to educate themselves about the issues facing minorities.
“It can’t be the responsibility of people of color to educate white people. It shouldn’t be. Because if you really care, you will educate yourselves,” Murphy said. “You will take personal responsibility for not just your personal behavior, but for calling out that which you see and know of. And that’s something that everybody can do, whether you are elected to something, appointed to something, or just walking up and down the street.
“Be mindful of how your words and your actions and your attitude and the environment around you affects people who are different from you.
“As we think about how racism is experienced or sexism is experienced or oppression is experienced by the people who are experiencing it, … I think that the white community generally … has a moral obligation to acknowledge those feelings,” she said. “Don’t try to make yourselves feel better by saying ‘Oh no no no, I didn’t do that’ or ‘Oh no no no, you must be mistaken’ or ‘Oh no no no, you misunderstood’ because it’s really about how we experience it. And the only way to learn how to accept and be an ally and be an advocate is to listen and learn and accept.”
Arlene Lee, co-chairman of the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice, said it was important to show some action after the meeting “because it has been going on forever.
“All the people in this room can talk about stories from the last three years, 10 years, 20 years,” she said. “We all know the stories, we’ve lived through them. So now it’s time to act.”
She urged elected officials to join the committee in training sessions about undoing racism and to work with the group to resolve issues that are occurring in the high school.
Lee said high school students of all races have been reporting “the racism they’re seeing and they’re saying they’re not getting any resolution.”
“These kids are sincerely telling us that they do not feel safe on the Kent County High School campus and we need to pay attention to that,” she said. “And we would like to join with the community, work with you, to figure out how to make sure our students are safe.
Lee also highlighted an anonymous reporting system. The Safe Schools Maryland Tip Line may be contacted by phone at 1-833-MD-B-SAFE (1-833-632-7233), online at safeschoolsmd.org or through the SafeSchoolsMD app available in both the Apple App Store and Google Play.
The Social Action Committee also has a rapid response team, she said.
“We have lawyers, we have social workers, we have a whole slew of resources that we’re prepared to bring to bear,” Lee said.
John Queen, founder and board president of the Bayside H.O.Y.A.S., commended town officials for “stepping in front of a moving train when you didn’t have to.
But Queen said a lot of people were being too nice.
“The reason young people are comfortable calling browns and blacks (a racial slur) is that there’s a culture here that has bred that for years,” he said. “The reason nothing has changed is because the whites in this county have not got up off their ass and made a change.
“No high school kid should say they fear for their life,” Queen said. “Karen Couch has heard this from (a student) for the last four years so to pretend like there’s not a problem in Kent County and like they’re doing everything, that’s false.
“The current county commissioners have said on public record they do not see racism. We live in America, it’s built on race,” he said. “So when you make a comment like that, you brush me down to the bottom of society and you tell me once again I don’t matter. Unacceptable on all levels.
“It’s not up to just the elected officials. It’s not just up to the school, the police, it’s up to all of us to work together, but whites, you’ve got to start leading for real,” Queen said. “You can’t benefit from your privilege and we’re constantly in here talking about race.
“People’ve got to take more ownership and be more proud to be a Kent County citizen and a person in this country who won’t tolerate it. We’ve got too many people standing in here talking political and they’re not giving any actions or solutions on what they’re going to do, in concrete, to make a change.”
“I know what racism is … and we’re not dealing with it,” Bishop Charles Tilghman Sr., president of the Kent County Branch of the NAACP, said. “We’ve got to do more than talk.”
Tilghman said the best analogy he could give is a bunch of apples in a basket.
“You’re always going to have some bad apples,” he said. “And it’s up to us to sort out the bad apples because if we don’t sort out the bad apples the whole basket is going to be rotten. And right now, it’s pretty stinking.”