Parents react to ‘N-word passes’ distributed by Md. high school students

WASHINGTON — A prominent public high school in Montgomery County, Maryland, is investigating after a small group of students were apparently passing out “racist, hateful” materials, according to the school’s principal.

On Feb. 8, three students at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, were found with what school principal Brandice Heckert described as an “N-word pass.” The school’s investigation found three students were handing out the passes, which offered the recipient permission to use the racial slur.

“This behavior is disgraceful and does not reflect the values expected of Winston Churchill students,” Heckert said in a letter home to parents. “Not only is this behavior hurtful to our community, but it also undermines all the great attributes our students have to offer.”

She did not specify how the students would be disciplined, but added, “Please be assured that they will match the severity of the action and will be in alignment with the student code of conduct.”

Parents who reached out to Churchill’s Parent Teacher Student Association president Bruce Adelson said they are pleased with Heckert’s response but have concerns about the broader issues of poor decision-making and racism among their children.

“I think the incident is a very serious one and it’s also very tragically reflective of the times that we live in particularly juxtaposed to the events across the river in Virginia with blackface and Ku Klux Klan revelations. It’s a very concerning time,” Adelson said.

Adelson, who teaches implicit bias and cultural competence at Georgetown Medical School, said he believes the school should not lose sight of the fact that those responsible for this incident are children, and this moment can be used to educate them the context behind their actions which make them so hurtful.

“Having teachable moments and really seizing on them to educate is extremely important,” Adelson said. “As an opportunity to say ‘Okay, let’s look at this, talk it out and let’s get to the bottom of this.'”

He said he tries to stress the importance of questioning trends that show up on social media — something he believes is magnifying the problem.

Students “see a lot of things on social media,” Adelson said. “They are unfiltered — they don’t have context. There are many things that we are all exposed to when we were growing up — the magnitude today is different because of the easy access to the world via a small device you put in your pocket.”

A PTSA meeting will be held Feb. 19 and will include an open forum for students, faculty and parents to engage on the topics of race and hate in schools, Adelson said.

Winston Churchill High School has been the site of multiple bias-related incidents since the 2016 school year, including a swastika drawn on a desk just days before the passes were exchanged, according to police data and school officials.

A spokeswoman for Montgomery County Public Schools declined to share the ages of the teens or if they were part of a group, such as a team or club. However, she said the school system backs up the principal’s handling of the incident.

“I think we all share the principal’s sentiments that we’re deeply disappointed and appalled that any student in any MCPS school would think it appropriate or even okay to hand out a pass of this nature,” said Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala.

“I think the principal has responded swiftly in assigning consequences, but more importantly, engaging the whole community,” Onijala said.

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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