Pinellas School Board Chairwoman Under Fire for Calling Disruptive Students ‘Hoodlums’

Ron Matus and Jamal Thalji, St. Petersburg Times, March 11, 2010

Pinellas School Board chairwoman Janet Clark is coming under fire for using the term “hoodlums” to describe a small group of chronically disruptive students in county schools.

Board members Mary Brown and Linda Lerner criticized Clark at Tuesday night’s board meeting. And now Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, said Clark’s refusal to apologize has made things worse.

“I was disgusted with her response,” Tampa said Wednesday.

The International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement–better known as the Uhurus–called for Clark to resign for the statement, which it viewed as racist. Clark is white. Tampa said he thought the comment was inappropriate, but not racist.

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Clark made the comment at a board workshop last week in a wide-ranging discussion about chronically disruptive students at John Hopkins Middle School and other Pinellas schools.

“So much time is taken up with addressing hoodlums, with kids who don’t want to be in school,” she said. She also said, “We are talking about a small number of children.”

Brown and Lerner weighed in Tuesday night.

“They might be disruptive. They might be in gangs. They might be many things, but they are not hoodlums,” Brown said. “I feel that that statement showed insensitivity to our children, and it certainly did not offer good guidance to our staff.”

“There are people upset out there about the comment, different kinds of people, including employees,” Lerner said. “We have to be careful as board members when we speak.”

Before the meeting, Clark said the statement had nothing to do with race. “I made no mention of race,” she said. “There are hoodlums of all races and colors and ethnic backgrounds.”

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But Clark may have stepped into a situation where the same word conjures up different images, depending on who hears it.

It does not appear the origins of the word “hoodlum” have any ties to race or ethnicity. It is an adaptation of a German word that meant “ragamuffin” or “good for nothing,” said Michael Adams, an associate professor of English at Indiana University and author of the 2009 book, Slang: The People’s Poetry.

But the meanings of words can change, Adams said. Over time, “hoodlum” may have become a more racially identifiable word, in part because of the slang term “hood,” short for neighborhood, and also because hood and hoodlum began to be applied to African-American youths by white people, he said.

“Hoodlum, when you look it up in the dictionary, doesn’t look so bad,” Adams said. But when people in the black community hear it, “they associate it with words and meanings other than (those from) 1871 or whenever it was the word first appeared in print.”

The professor said the case reminds him of the uproar from a 1999 incident when a Washington D.C., city official used the term “niggardly” to describe how he was managing budget cuts. It means “miserly,” but another employee took it as a racial slur.

Said Adams: “What people hear always means something more than what a word may mean historically.”

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