Maryland School Deaf MSD

The administration building on the campus of Maryland School for the Deaf off South Market Street.

An independent review of the Maryland School for the Deaf appears to be necessary, a high-ranking state senator said this week.

Sen. Guy Guzzone (D-Howard), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said there needs to be continued follow up after a hearing Thursday in response to concerns raised about the school, which has campuses in Frederick and Columbia. 

Twelve people testified, including alumni, parents, former employees, members of the school's leadership, and leaders of local NAACP branches. The hearing was jointly held by the Budget and Taxation Committee and the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. 

"We want to make sure we know what is going on at this school, and any school, to ensure that kids get that [equal] opportunity. And if they're not in some way, shape or form, we've got to figure it out," Guzzone said.

The overall sentiment from senators seemed to be that the school was in need of more oversight and accountability, including questions raised about who exactly governs the school.

MSD is a public institution, but has a Board of Trustees. School leaders say they receive direction from the Maryland State Department of Education, but according to Guzzone, state education officials declined to attend Thursday.

Maryland School for the Deaf provides free, public education to deaf and hard-of-hearing residents in Maryland from birth until the age of 21. The school operates on two campuses, one in Columbia and one in Frederick. The high school campus is in Frederick, and most students who begin their education at Columbia’s campus eventually transfer to Frederick when they reach a certain age.

In August, the News-Post spoke to a few of the same individuals who testified on Thursday. They shared stories of racism, bullying, and elitism by staff and coaches at the Frederick school. They claimed former Superintendent James Tucker, who led the school for almost three decades, built a toxic culture and threatened those who tried to speak out.

Following calls for Tucker's removal, he announced in late August that he would retire one year early. He left the school in early September. 

Catherine Griswold's child attended MSD and she was a former director of nursing at the school. Griswold testified that during her time as an employee, students who were generationally deaf, meaning their parents and a majority of their family are also deaf, were given preferential treatment in terms of academic and athletic opportunities.

Students whose parents were not deaf or students who were hard of hearing were treated differently. This was fueled by Tucker, she said.

"I have been told on a number of occasions by James Tucker that...hard-of-hearing students do not belong anywhere. That hard-of-hearing students are not deaf enough and therefore they are not really part of the community at Maryland School for the Deaf," Griswold said.

Complaints by members of the school community need to be investigated in an objective way, Griswold said.

Barbara Dezmon, State Education Chair for the Maryland State Conference NAACP, agreed.

"I have doubts and I'm very curious about the cures or the remedies that have been suggested by the new superintendent," Dezmon said. "It seems that historically the Maryland School for the Deaf has been operating on their own with little to no accountability to outside agencies, only to themselves."  

The remedies Dezmon was referring to was a list of steps the MSD Board of Trustees and school administration announced over the summer.

Former Board of Trustees chairman Robert Davila told the News-Post in August that the school planned to take several actions including hiring a chief diversity officer and an independent consultant to identify systemic racism present within MSD. 

However, Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Baltimore and Howard) said he didn't have confidence in school leadership to respond appropriately.

"These are very serious systemic problems that are ingrained in the culture of the school, it seems like, and without an independent look at what's going on here, I'm not confident that this will be solved," he said. 

Two members of the school's leadership also testified. Acting board president Stephen Hlibok gave a short statement and said the school continues to thrive with some challenges. Interim Superintendent Kevin Strachan said that the stories being told were tough to digest. 

He said he didn't understand why folks are only coming forward now and did not complain during accreditations of the school, which are done every seven years. The most recent accreditation happened three years ago and staff and families were surveyed, according to Strachan.

"In the surveys...that were done three years ago, we were told about some concerns about equity but...there is no evidence of some of the terrible things that are being said," Strachan said. "I'm not saying that I haven't heard some of this before, but what I'm telling you is that this is not the school I know. I know us as a very strong school, a model school." 

Strachan went on to say that the "noise" of the complaints from over the summer has made it a difficult year for the school. 

Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George's), who serves as chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, warned Strachan against calling it noise.

"I think that's a little bit dismissive of calling it noise...there's usually a grain of truth in a lot of things," Pinsky said. 

Alzenia Harcum, a parent of a 10th grader at MSD, testified she did not feel there was racism present at the school, but felt there was a sense of elitism amongst the Frederick campus students who looked down upon the students who transferred from the Columbia campus.

There were claims of racism from others who testified, though, including from Maria Hourihan, a former teacher's aide of MSD, who told senators a story of a Black student being physically abused by a staff member. The school took little to no action after she reported the incident, Hourihan said through an interpreter, and she claimed that the individual who abused the student was still employed at MSD.

Willie Flowers, president of the Howard County Chapter of the NAACP, said he was contacted by a group of MSD students two years ago who said they were victims of bullying and racism. He also questioned Strachan's comments about how well the school is doing. 

"Racial discrimination and disrespect should not be an experience that any child has in Maryland public schools," Flowers said. "[Strachan's] testimony reads like a person who has never been racially discriminated against nor has he spent time learning about the pain and trauma caused when children are hurt in such a way...he never once offers an apology to students who have been impacted by the systemic problems with the school for the deaf."

It is unclear what steps will be taken to address concerns about MSD following Thursday's hearing, but Guzzone said there needs to be more discussion.

"There's clearly something here...we've got to figure out what we can do, and at the end of the day, as has been said many times, every child deserves the best," Guzzone said. "We're going to do our very best as policymakers...to provide the resources and the policy so that everyone has an equal chance to live their best lives." 

Follow Katryna Perera on Twitter: @katrynajill

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