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Maryland - Students at a suburban Maryland high school distributed "N-word passes" that were intended to grant students who received the pieces of paper "permission" to use the racial slur.

The passes were issued by students at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, during lunch Friday, according to an email that Principal Brandice Heckert sent to parents Monday. She denounced the incident as racist and promised to use the episode to foster a conversation about creating a "welcoming and respectful climate for all."

"Acts of hatred and intolerance frustrate and sadden me because I believe that we are better than this," Heckert wrote. "This act, or like behaviour, is not how I want or expect Winston Churchill students to be remembered."

Three students were at the centre of creating and distributing the passes, said Derek Turner, spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools. Those students and others who distributed or received the passes were disciplined, Turner said, but he could not detail the students' punishment.

The students belong to a "variety of racial backgrounds," Turner said.

It wasn't the only such incident at Churchill this school year. In November, a swastika was found on a desk. The symbol was again discovered at the school in more recent weeks, Turner said.

The Parent Teacher Student Association at Churchill plans to use its meeting next week to have an open conversation about tolerance, bias and racism, said Bruce Adelson, the group's president and an instructor at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

Adelson, an expert on implicit bias and civil rights awareness, said the school's response demonstrated an openness to having important conversations and said the students' actions speak "to the larger world that we live in and the reality that we live in."

The Washington Post