Dr. Leonard Wheeler, Vice President of the Harford County Board of Education, said at a meeting last week that racism was behind the decision by school officials not to air an address by President Barack Obama live on September 8, 2009. The speech was recorded by HCPS instead and shown days later to more than 99% of the students in attendance, according to Superintendent Robert Tomback.
Before Vice President Wheeler leveled his charge against the school system that he oversees, the controversy was addressed by other school officials, along with a number of public speakers.
Newly appointed Superintendent Tomback explained that school staff “knew from the outset” that they would not be able to air the speech live, because “we simply do not have the technological capability to do such a live broadcast”. Tomback called the lack of capability “regrettable” and continued:
“It is also regrettable that this was misinterpreted as some unilateral attempt to deny access to our students or in some way to censor the President. Not only is that view incorrect, it is anathema to our instructional and motivational purposes for showing the address.”
Dr. Tomback also said that the school system recorded the speech so that instruction would be “meaningful and enduring, rather than treat it as a media event.” Tomback said that the lessons prepared for the speech were differentiated for students from elementary through high school.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Roger Plunkett, along with several school principals, followed up with some examples. Plunkett said that having the speech on DVD allowed teachers to pause to ask meaningful questions. One of the principals said many 4-year-olds didn’t know who the president was, so activities were planned to prepare them to view the speech in context.
Board President Mark Wolkow said that all of the board members and the superintendent wanted as many students as possible to see the speech, but the schools’ first press release didn’t send that message, prompting fellow board member Robin Rich to ask “What are you guys doing? This is the President of the United States.”
Wolkow said the communication “didn’t represent what was actually happening” but school officials knew they couldn’t air the speech live, and perhaps should have said so, but they “didn’t want to get into that”. Wolkow said there had been “lots of feedback” on both sides of the issue and noted that in other school systems, decisions regarding the speech were left up to principals, some of whom decided not to air the speech at all. Wolkow said HCPS got “the biggest black eye” over the incident and apologized for the communication problem, concluding “We got the message wrong, but we did right.”
Wolkow said he was committed to improving communications in the future.
Former school board member Salina Williams was among ten public speakers on the topic, all of whom disagreed with the decision not to air the speech live. Many of the speakers said the decision was disrespectful to the President and Yolanda Strickland-Lucas, who identified herself as the Co-Chair of Harford County for Obama, said she believed the decision may have been a violation of students’ civil rights.
Vice President Wheeler followed the public speakers, calling the decision a “travesty and an abomination” and saying he “struggled to keep ‘that word’ out of his comments. Wheeler didn’t identify the word immediately, but spoke at length about the issue.
Wheeler said that when he read that HCPS would not show President Obama’s speech live, “that word entered into my consciousness but I dismissed it, for surely it did not apply.” Wheeler said he is “convinced absolutely” that Superintendent Tomback is “competent, and he is a good man” and school officials “are good people.” But Wheeler said that when he learned of the school system’s plan to preview the speech for instructional and curricular value, he said “that dreaded word reappeared in my head, only this time it was in color.” Wheeler said he became “obsessed” with finding out why the decision had been made. He noted that previous Presidents had addressed students in school, but he didn’t think there was a call to preview their comments, asking: “Why is this President held to such standards?” Wheeler continued:
“Why is this President shown public disrespect? I just cannot get ‘that word’ out of my head; a word that is both a noun and an adjective; a word that I am afraid to use because I don’t want to lose my friends; a word that people of different skin colors go out of their way to avoid.”
Wheeler said he also heard callers to local radio stations refer to the President as “that guy” and said “that word kept coming back to me with a vengeance.” And Wheeler said parents and others he encountered wanted to know why and how the decision was made and again, “that word” came back.
Wheeler said “the presumption that a preview was needed is really insufficient” and that, as a citizen and as a board member, “I am compelled to reject the response as to why the decision is proposed in the original announcement.” Wheeler did not explain the statement further, but concluded:
“I have accepted the consequences and risk of using that word. I fully understand that reactions to this word are characterized as defensive, denial, rejection, divisive and anger, rather than the reasonable explanation as to what that word is. And that word is racism.”
Wheeler’s remarks prompted a standing ovation from approximately 20 members of the audience.
The following day, HCPS issued a press release summarizing the board meeting. But the account did not address, or even mention the charges made by Dr. Wheeler.