Churchill fight aftermath: Parents unhappy with principal’s solution

Friday, Jan. 5, 2007

Parents and students at Winston Churchill High School are dissatisfied with the way school officials reacted after a fight Wednesday on the Potomac campus that involved gang members.

Members of the Churchill community said Principal Joan Benz inappropriately described the conflict as ‘‘Black-on-Black violence” in a letter sent home to parents on Thursday. They also said banning hats — a new rule enacted after the fight — would not prevent students from fighting.

‘‘I was really shocked and scared and pretty appalled by [the fight],” said Abigail McCormick, whose daughter is a Churchill student. ‘‘I’m not so sure I’m happy with the way they’re handling it.”

According to Montgomery County Police, the fight began shortly before 11:25 a.m. Wednesday inside the school at 11300 Gainsborough Road. Police said six boys who were gathered near the school store began an argument that stemmed from previous disagreements. The conflict escalated to a fight when one of the boys suggested they take it outside.

A 16-year-old and 14-year-old, both from Potomac, and a 15-year-old from Silver Spring were charged with one count each of second-degree assault and disturbing school activities. In addition, a 16-year-old from Potomac was charged with one count of disturbing school activities and another 16-year-old from Potomac was charged with two counts of second-degree assault, according to Montgomery County Police.

Churchill students charged with assault
All of the teens, who are not being named because they are juveniles, were released to the custody of their parents. They were suspended from school for 10 days.

The four Potomac boys are members of the street gang 54 MOB, a gang that has been involved in graffiti, drug possession and truancy, according to police.

The Silver Spring boy is not affiliated with a gang, police said.

In her letter to parents, Benz described the incident in a way that some parents found racially insensitive.

‘‘Every incident revolving around this two month ordeal has been Black-on-Black violence,” Benz wrote. ‘‘At the very time yesterday’s assaults were taking place, I learned that the SAT mean scores for our African-American students had risen an amazing [203] points with an increase by [33] percent in their participation rate.”

Benz wrote another letter to parents and students on Thursday evening.

‘‘I deeply apologize to our Churchill students and parents who were offended and want to reassure you that I value each and every student in our school community and work every day to make sure each student is successful,” she wrote. ‘‘I did not intend to single out one group of students in a negative light. I am particularly sorry that my choice of words reflected racial insensitivity.”

Churchill PTA President Robyn Solomon said she fully supports Benz and said she had received many phone calls from parents who also support the principal.

But for some parents and students, the damage was already done.

McCormick said she was surprised that students’ race was mentioned in the letter. ‘‘I think it’s so wrong,” she said. ‘‘I was very upset by that.”

McCormick said her daughter transferred to Churchill this school year from Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, where race was not an issue. ‘‘At Richard Montgomery there was fighting, but it wasn’t singled out as a racial situation,” she said.

Another parent, Naomi Sigalas, said she was also surprised by Benz’s comments.

‘‘I was surprised that she would bring up the black issue and the test scores,” she said. ‘‘That upset me a great deal. I was offended by it. The fight upset me a lot, but I’m really shocked about that comment.”

Although the conflicts were between two groups of students — one of which is affiliated with a gang — police are not classifying the fights as gang-related because they were based on personal disagreements rather than gang-initiated action, police said.

Still, Benz is enforcing new rules. Beginning Monday, students will not be allowed to wear hats, bandanas, do-rags, skullcaps or hoods. In addition, they will not be allowed to attach bandanas, flags, banners or pieces of fabric to their belongings, according to Benz’s first letter.

But some parents said the measures don’t do enough to address fighting, while students said the restrictions infringe on their rights.

‘‘I’m still uneasy about banning hats because that’s not really dealing with the issue,” said Becca Sigalas, a sophomore at Churchill. ‘‘A lot of people are planning on wearing hats on Monday in protest.”

Her mother said she wanted more done.

‘‘I don’t think it was enough to make them stop wearing hats,” Naomi Sigalas said. ‘‘I’m really upset about it. I don’t think the kids should be allowed back in school.”

McCormick also said something more proactive should be done to stop violence among students.

‘‘It’s such a small minority group,” she said. ‘‘I think they should intermingle the kids together. I’m not so sure the African-American kids didn’t get the short end of the stick.”

Churchill’s student population is 6.6 percent black, according to Montgomery County Public Schools records.