High school relocation spat fans racial flames in Bowie
Aug. 4, 2000
Catherine Hollingsworth
Staff Writer

Bowie officials are concerned about the city's image in the aftermath of a heated town hall meeting last month that many Prince George's County residents said exposed lingering racial tensions.

Many of the 100 or so residents who gathered at the July 18 meeting strongly objected to a plan to move 1,200 students from Bladensburg High School, where the student body is about three-quarters African American, to a building in Bowie.

The students at Bladensburg, the alma mater of County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), need a temporary home for two years beginning in January 2001 while their new school is under construction. Plans for the $45 million project were announced this week.

How this issue has played out in the media is of special concern to some Bowie City Council members, who say the majority Caucasian city is getting a bum rap.

"We're being degraded right and left," Councilman Bill Aleshire said. "What do you think it does to Bowie? It's a bad rap."

The controversy seems to stem from one man's remarks at that July meeting.

John Phillips of Glenn Dale reportedly told the crowd of about 100 that he moved out of Bladensburg after 14 years to get away from "the element." He warned, "You're going to get an element you don't want." He said crimes committed by students often go underreported.

Phillips' remarks were quoted in news stories on the meeting. Newspapers in the county weighed in editorially: The Bowie Star (owned by The Gazette) published an editorial last week chastising Bowie's leadership for not challenging Phillips' remarks. And a cartoon in The Prince George's Journal poked fun at the flap.

Phillips told The Bowie Star that he had no comment.

County school board member Catherine Smith, whose district includes Bladensburg and who attended the meeting, called the reported comment "racist."

"Bladensburg is lower-income and African American, and a lot of people equate that with crime and violence," Smith said.

While she said she believes the statement does not represent the Bowie community, "unfortunately, people applauded."

Still, Smith said, "I thought the parents at the meeting raised a lot of good issues. The concerns people raised had merit and deserve to be looked at."

Just as it is unfair to make a blanket statement about Bladensburg, Smith said it would be unfair to characterize the entire city of Bowie as racist.

After a week of turmoil, Aleshire said he wants to set the record straight.

"This is getting a little bit out of proportion," he said. "We need to dispel this somehow."

First of all, he said, Phillips is not from Bowie. He doesn't have any children in Bowie schools, and he is not represented by the council member who called the meeting, Paul Ellington.

"Why was he here in the first place?" Aleshire asked.

Furthermore, the councilman said, Bowie is not the first community to object to hosting Bladensburg students. In fact, a plan to send the students to the old Northwestern High School building was rejected by the Hyattsville City Council out of concern that the students would be too close to the new Northwestern High School. Bowie residents raised a similar argument at the July meeting.

They also said other options should be considered before relocating the students to Bowie because the city needs the extra space to relieve overcrowded schools.

Others worried about the effect two high schools could have on parking and traffic.

Still others were concerned about fights, crime, litter and the tacky appearance of portable units that will be needed to house all the Bladensburg students.

But Bryan McReynolds, PTSA president at Bowie High School -- the site of a cross-burning in 1997 that resulted in the conviction of two Bowie residents and two out-of-town cohorts on civil rights violations -- said there is an undeniable racial element to the controversy.

"Bowie is scared of the color that is coming into Bowie," he said. "Before, Bowie was [94] percent white [according to the 1990 Census]. It is, I would venture to say, now 30-35 percent black. Some people don't see that as diversity, they see that as division."

McReynolds said he was bothered by the applause that followed Phillips' comment and by the fact that no City Council members responded to the comment or the favorable reaction to it, responding only to the media reports afterward.

And, as one of the new African Americans at the meeting, he had mixed feelings about his own silence. But, he said, if he spoke up at the meeting, "I would have become the issue. Let them stew in their own words."

Bowie Mayor Fred Robinson has suggested several alternatives, including putting the students into space at the University of Maryland and the new Flowers High School.

"If there is an alternative, then I will explore it, and I don't think I should be called a bigot for that," Robinson said.

Robinson agreed that Bladensburg needs a new school, but said Bowie students should get dibs on the space: "Our initial concern is that we have been seeking access to the annex as a second building for a middle school."

Bowie Councilman Leo Green said the focus on Phillips skews the issue. "Our schools are overcrowded, that's really the issue here -- not 'element.'"

Calling Phillips' remarks "inappropriate rhetoric," Green said, "I don't think it reflects our community. We're a very open community."

Bladensburg Mayor David Harrington, who has been following the issue and did not attend the July meeting, said, "I was taken aback by reports that I heard about the students of Bladensburg coming to Bowie. If this represents Bowie, I am very concerned."

But Harrington, who described his relationship with Bowie officials as "good," said he did not want to overreact and did not think the viewpoint of one man represented Bowie.

"These students are not that negative 'element,' these are students who want a good education," he said. "To stereotype these students is totally offensive."

He added, "If the opposition is based on overcrowding, then I would support the superintendent sitting down with the [Bowie] leadership to resolve that. If the opposition is based on fear of Bladensburg students, I would totally reject that fear."

Bladensburg High School Principal David Stofa said some people have "bad information" about the Bladensburg community. In the end, he said, he believes Bowie would welcome Bladensburg students.

Bowie High School Principal Suzanne Maxey has said the relocation plan can work.

Robinson said people outside the community should understand Bowie's frustration.

For example, he said the city literally feels dumped on because the county wants to put a trash transfer site in Bowie, which has long been the home of the Sandy Hill landfill. Bowie has had to come up with its own money to pay for large projects, he said, including a new gymnasium, senior center and performing arts center.

"Sometimes it feels like people are piling on us," he said.