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On His Honor

Local Man's Lawsuit Against Boy Scouts Of America Highlights Pattern Of Exclusion By Organization

Frank Klein
THRIFTY, BRAVE, CLEAN, AND REVERENT: (from left) Roots Of Scouting founder Leo Burroughs and fired Boy Scouts Of America staffer Steven Turner worry that the BSA could be doing more than it is for Baltimore city's youth.

By Jason Torres | Posted 10/11/2006

There's a film crew shooting near the District Court Civil Division courthouse in the 500 block of East Fayette Street on Sept. 27, and scores of people walk by, chattering, wondering what the commotion is about. The spectacle is lost on Steven Turner, though. Dressed in a perfectly tailored dark suit and fedora, he seems calm and composed, but angry eyes flash through his lightly tinted shades. Moments earlier, a civil court judge dismissed his lawsuit against a former employer for expenses and wrongful termination due to the fact that there is an open investigation being performed by the city Community Relations Commission. According to article 49B of the Maryland Code, once a case becomes a fair employment agency issue, it's out of the civil courts' jurisdiction. Turner sees the setback as another example of his trouble with his former employer. "I see a pattern of them finding loopholes," he says. "They play games, and this is just an example of the type of atmosphere I was dealing with when I worked there."

Turner's talking about the Boy Scouts of America, the local office of which he worked for earlier this year. For some observers, Turner's case underlines longstanding concerns about the the 96-year-old youth organization's commitment to programs for inner-city kids in Baltimore and its lack of minorities in positions of leadership.

Turner, 44, is a former Baltimore City police officer who says that he left the force for "personal reasons" in 1992; he also worked for the mayor's office during Kurt Schmoke's administration as an employment developer. Before that, he grew up in the Boy Scouts. He joined an independent church group of Boy Scout Volunteers when he was 12 for three years, he says. On Jan. 3, he joined the Boy Scouts of America's Baltimore Area Council as a district executive, responsible for marketing and fundraising. He was fired Feb. 21.

A memo from field director Ron McKinney says Turner was terminated because of several instances of tardiness throughout February. The memo adds that Turner expressed "frustration and anger" when confronted about his lateness. BSA attorney Kevin McCormick confirms the memo's accuracy. "He was a probationary employee, he missed a series of meetings, he was late for others, including one that he requested," McCormick says. But Turner notes that he was awarded a plaque for outstanding leadership on Jan. 26, just a few weeks before he was fired. He also says that he had legitimate reasons for every offense, which he made clear to his superiors. In one case mentioned in the memo, in which he was accused of "[leaving] a Scout function without informing a superior," Turner says he left to grab a bite to eat in order to settle his diabetes.

Turner, who is African-American, says he believes that his firing was actually due to the fact that he made it known at a BSA staff meeting on Feb. 9 that he was going to be vocal and adamant about his opinions regarding race, including that the Boy Scouts should have a bigger presence in Baltimore's African-American community. He contends he also stated at the meeting that he disagreed with the BSA's district executive training program; he felt he was never "properly trained," that often things were expected of him that were never fully explained or explained at all. He also felt there needed be a multicultural advisory board to insure fair hiring practices. "I was rocking the boat, and they didn't like that," Turner says.

McCormick squelches any talk of racism with the local BSA: "The person who hired [Turner] was African-American and the person who fired him was African-American." The Boy Scouts of America would not comment directly on Turner's suit, but a position statement on diversity in membership and leadership notes that "the BSA respects the rights of people and groups who hold values that differ from those encompassed in the Scout Oath and Law, and the BSA makes no effort to deny the rights of those whose views differ to hold their attitudes or opinions. Scouts come from all walks of life and are exposed to diversity in Scouting that they may not otherwise experience." On June 28, 2000, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the Boy Scouts of America's standing as a private organization with the right to set its own membership and leadership standards. According to the 2005 BSA annual report, the Baltimore Area Council has 46,000 youth members. The report acknowledges that, statistically, membership has steadily declined in all communities in the last few years, not just urban areas.

Long before Turner brought his claims about the BSA's racial policies to court, Baltimore native Leo Burroughs, 65, has been calling attention to what he believes to be unfair practices by the Boy Scouts. In 1980, Scout leader Burroughs founded the Roots of Scouting, a watchdog organization that, in part, keeps an eye on the placement of minorities within the administrative ranks of the BSA. Burroughs and Roots of Scouting have been featured in stories in The Sun and Afro-American newspapers; as Burroughs meets with a reporter, he's holding a clipping in his hand, dated 1983, in which he asked a U.S. District Court judge to investigate his accusation that a federal magistrate was responsible for keeping black Boy Scouts from participating in a World Jamboree event.

Burroughs says Roots of Scouting has "a cooperative working relationship" with the BSA. "We have a professional relationship, but we will determine what is in our best interest as African-Americans in terms of tailor-making the Scout program to fit the needs of our community."

The members of Roots of Scouting, many of whom have 35 to 40 years of experience in scouting, create programs that they believe highlight and emphasize cultural awareness, from a Marcus Garvey leadership and training institute to a Martin Luther King Jr. campout event, all designed to facilitate unity among African-American children, Burroughs says. The 100 members, including Scouts, Scout leaders ,and volunteers spread over seven troops from South Baltimore out to Baltimore County, don't operate separately from the BSA, Burroughs says, but as a supplement to its activities and training. "We just want to create a generation of young people who are alert, academically brilliant, and prone to challenge the status quo," he says. "And that's not going to come out the main-line Boy Scouts of America."

Burroughs says he makes it a regular practice to stay aware of all the hiring and firing that goes on in the Baltimore Area Council, and that he met with Turner after he was fired.

"This is a more than 20-year tradition of pressuring African-American men, firing African-American men, and putting them at a disadvantage in the performance of their professional duties in the Baltimore Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America," Burroughs says. "What has happened to Steven Turner is an injustice. There's a list of alleged reasons for Mr. Turner's termination, including the fact that he was late for a few meetings, allegedly, which is just a bunch of crap. You don't create financial hardship, pain, and suffering of working people just because they were late for a meeting.

"This was just another ruse, a strategy being used by the Boy Scouts to disenfranchise and discriminate against African-American people," he continues. "What's been done here is a travesty-we see it as violation of the Scout Oath and Law."

Burroughs rattles off the names of other former African-American Scout leaders who've quit or been fired, but notes that Turner is different: "Some others who've been fired have agreed that they've been victimized, but they were unwilling to fight. Steven's a fighter and he stands up for what's right."

Turner says he plans to continue his fight; the suit will next go before the Baltimore Community Relations Commission, where it will be determined if Turner was wrongfully terminated by the BSA and whether or not he is owed unpaid expense money. While he is disappointed by what he says happened to him, he still supports the BSA in theory and hopes that even if his suit can't spark a change, that the attention it brings will result in more people becoming aware of the Boy Scouts.

"The benefits are great-kids go on to college and get great jobs from it. The impact of being involved in the program are well-documented, so why hide it from people who need it the most?" he asks. "[The BSA] needs more leaders that are going to be sensitive to the needs of the minority and ethnic community. There are too many families that have no idea that these programs are available."

After all, if more black children join the Scouts, he argues, fewer black children will join gangs or turn to crime. As he sees it, his firing ultimately means one less liaison between the African-American community and the Boy Scouts. He cites the death of Kevin Cooper, the 14-year-old Baltimore boy who was shot by police this past August in the wake of an argument with his mother.

"That boy was probably just being hardheaded, like so many teens are," Turner speculates. "His mom probably just called the police to scare him straight, you know, but look what happened.

"If people knew that the Boy Scouts were an option, things like that wouldn't happen," he says. "He was the exact age for our mentoring program."

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