Police Move to Cool Alhambra High Racial Tension

Times Staff Writer

A police crisis intervention team has been assigned to Alhambra High School in the wake of a violent campus confrontation last week between Vietnamese students and a group of Latino and Anglo athletes.

Authorities said the incident, in which one of the athletes was stabbed and several Vietnamese students were injured, raised concern that hostilities might escalate with a Vietnamese street gang seeking revenge on campus.

Alhambra Police Chief Joseph T. Molloy said a youth services section--consisting of a sergeant, two investigators and a civilian counselor--has been assigned to the school this week after word spread on campus that the Viet Ching, a Vietnamese youth gang, would retaliate against the athletes involved in the fight, which took place last Friday near the school library and involved 15 to 20 students. Four Vietnamese students were arrested later for carrying weapons and a total of 10 students from both sides were suspended from school.

Molloy said his team, which normally works with schools, will concentrate on the Alhambra campus until tensions have eased.

"The word we got was that the kids who got their comeuppance were not going to take this lying down," Molloy said. "We're there to relieve some of the tension and some of the frustration. There are some groups, whether they be Hispanic, Asian or Anglo, that do feel their territorial rights are being infringed. We're trying to be a bridge between those different cultures."

Molloy said police arrested one 15-year-old Vietnamese student who participated in the fight and who was later found on campus carrying a knife. Three other Vietnamese students were arrested outside school for possessing clubs and nunchakus , an illegal Japanese weapon made of two hardwood sticks joined at the ends by a short chain.

Alhambra Principal Frank Cano said tempers had cooled this week and the situation appeared under control. Cano characterized the fight as an isolated incident that did not appear to be racially motivated, even though one of the groups was made up of recent refugees from Vietnam and the other was composed of Anglo and Latino athletes.

"The bottom line fear is that Vietnamese gangs from the outside might get involved," Cano said. "Right now everything is under control. This has been a beautiful and peaceful school year. Last week's incident was isolated and was prompted by a comment over new-wave hair styles."

Police, however, say the incident was not isolated, but they are reluctant to call it racial. Students say the fight, although unusual, was preceded by several smaller incidents earlier in the school year, including a fight last December between Vietnamese and Latino student gangs behind a market a block from the school. They attribute the violence to racial tension on a campus that is overcrowded and has undergone a tremendous cultural transformation in the past few years.

In the last decade, refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan have tripled the Asian student population--which now stands at 42%--in the Alhambra school district. The most profound impact of this influx has been at the high school level, where competition for good grades and college has intensified and where students often cluster into social groupings isolated by culture and language differences. Anti-Asian sentiments abound on the Alhambra campus, particularly among Latino students.

"This has been going on since the invasion of all these Orientals," said one Latino student in a comment typical of several others. "Everyone pretty much unites against the Chinos (Asians). They come around here with their fancy cars and new-wave styles and we don't like it."

Molloy said police investigators on campus had encountered similar sentiments among other Latino students and, to a lesser degree, among Anglo students. But he said it was less a matter of racism than of "an ignorance of culture."

"We're telling the kids, 'Hey, we understand these frustrations, we understand there are periodic problems when cultures mix," Molloy said. "It's part of a continuing problem and we don't think it should be viewed as an isolated incident. It didn't happen all of a sudden. Most certainly there are anxieties, most certainly there are frustrations. But I question whether it's racially motivated. I think it's more territorial."

The fight--according to police, school officials and students--grew out of a confrontation last Thursday between several Vietnamese students and a popular athlete, who is American Indian. The athlete and his girlfriend were leaving a track meet on campus, in which the athlete had competed, when words were exchanged. The Vietnamese students, according to Cano, thought the athlete had insulted their punk hair styles and clothing.

On Friday morning, the athlete and several football players and wrestlers confronted a group of Vietnamese students near the school library. "All I heard was Chinos, Chinos," said Jesse Heredia, a 16-year-old sophomore who witnessed the fight. "There were 15 or 20 people fighting and before you knew it there was blood all over."

The athlete received two puncture wounds, at least one of which was caused by a knife, according to police. Several of the Vietnamese students suffered bruises and facial cuts.

Asian students were reluctant to discuss the incident. Several interviewed outside the campus after school said they had experienced prejudice but that most American students were understanding of their culture.

"There are a good group of Hispanics and a bad group. Same with the Asians and the Caucasians," said a 17-year-old recent immigrant from Taiwan. "When one bad group mixes with another bad group, you have problems."

May To, the director of an Alhambra-based agency that helps Asian refugees and immigrants resettle and find jobs in the San Gabriel Valley, said it is important that school officials and police know the recent history of Asian immigrants and refugees, especially those from Southeast Asia who have experienced war, refugee camps and dangerous flights to freedom.

"Ninety percent of the Indo-Chinese population here is Vietnamese," said To. "Children from these families have grown up in an environment of danger that breeds a survival instinct. There's a potential for violence among refugees that you don't always see in other immigrants."

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