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POTOMAC – On Feb.  8, students at Winston Churchill High School were discovered handing out golden passes that gave others “permission” to use the N-word. Different versions of the Willy Wonka style tickets can be found on the internet as memes, which are often captioned pictures or short videos that are shared through social media.

“We thought it was a joke,” said Lucas Lin, who is a junior at Churchill High School. “Then (we) were surprised that so many teachers and administration took it seriously.”

Although the issue has gained considerable local media attention, many students were unaware of the incident until announcements were made at school and an email was sent home to parents.

“I was as confused as almost my entire classroom,” Lin said, “I got more details after asking more teachers and students and reading articles online in the following days.”

In response, Churchill High School Principal Brandice Heckert sent an email, explaining what happened and her methods of addressing the incident to the Churchill High School community.  She wrote that the incident was very disappointing to see and called the action racist and hateful.

“This behavior is disgraceful and does not reflect the values expected of Winston Churchill students,” she wrote in the email.

In order to address the issue and engage parents in dialogue Heckert reached out to the Churchill High School PTSA. Bruce Adelson who is the president of the school’s PTSA, encouraged holding a forum dedicated to talking about intolerance and bias.

Students, school officials and parents attended the PTSA forum on Feb. 19 to have an open conversation about the incident and discuss next steps.

“From my perspective, I think that dialogue and communication are extremely important,” Adelson said. “We encouraged students to attend and several did speak, they were quite emotive about what this meant to them.”

Adelson explained that he was impressed with the school’s quick response to the situation, especially because he has a son who is a senior at Churchill. Adelson also happens to be well versed in issues of bias and race; he worked for years as a civil attorney and is currently a professor at Georgetown University where his classes focus on about implicit bias and civil rights awareness.

He went on to explain that the incident at Churchill could not be classified as a hate crime as there was no destruction of property or intimidation.

“But the (Montgomery County Public Schools) has a code of conduct that has its own administrative process and penalties that are not crimes,” he said. The penalty for the students involved hasn’t been released to the public.

Recently, race has come to the forefront of talking points in America. According to the FBI’s 2017 hate crime statistics, the number of hate crime incidents has increased about 17 percent and out of 7,106 single-bias incidents, race/ethnicity/ancestry played a role in 59.6 percent of the cases. The report adds that 10.5 percent of hate crimes committed in 2017 happened in schools and colleges.

“I understand how this incident could be incredibly offensive and insulting to a whole culture and history,” Lin said. He explained that he and his friends have a better understanding now of what behavior is right and what is wrong.

The announcements made to students the following Monday were enough to jump start discussions with teachers and in classrooms.

Adelson echoes this saying that in instances like these it’s important to remember the setting.

“At a high school level, it’s particularly important to remember that this is an educational institution,” he said. “The school is educating children, educating teenagers, so an additional amount of care and concern is needed.”

Ping Lu, a Churchill High School parent and vice president of the PTSA explained that she feels the email sent out by Principal Heckert and the way the school responded to the situation was enough to address the incident.

Moving forward, Churchill’s PTSA says they’d be happy to hold more forums about bias and intolerance as needed for the school’s community. So far, additional meetings or a follow up to the incident by school officials has not been announced by the Churchill High School or MCPS.

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