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Violence Erupts at 3 High Schools : Disturbances: Racial tensions and gang rivalry apparently are behind the unrelated incidents. One student is shot.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gunfire, fistfights and racial tension erupted almost simultaneously at three Los Angeles-area high schools Tuesday morning. One student was shot and several hundred others were sent home early for the day, authorities said.

Dozens of police officers and security guards were dispatched to quell the violence that broke out in unrelated incidents at Inglewood, Jordan and Manual Arts high schools before noon.

While the incidents were unrelated, law enforcement authorities and school officials said the incidents at two of the schools may be symptomatic of racial problems brewing in communities experiencing rapid ethnic and cultural change.

Two of the incidents involved conflicts between black and Latino students and the third was attributed to gang rivalry.

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“I think what occurred today was spontaneous in nature, but it may have deeper roots,” said Daniel Isaacs, assistant superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s senior high school division.

“I think we have to do more as a school district and more as a city to address the changing demographics,” Isaacs said, “and to ensure that adults and students have a greater appreciation and awareness (of) and sensitivity to multi-ethnic and multi-cultural issues.”

Steve Valdivia, executive director of Community Youth Gang Services, which counsels youths, monitors gang activity and educates the community about gangs, agreed that the conflicts may have grown out of misunderstandings and said that schools are the place where it is logical for such conflicts to arise.

In the most serious disturbance, a 19-year-old Manual Arts High School senior was shot about 10:30 a.m. by a classmate in a gang-related attack that occurred during a snack break on a crowded volleyball court.

Freddy Tapia, who was described by police as a suspected gang member, was listed in stable condition at County-USC Medical Center with two gunshot wounds to the right hip, a spokesman for the hospital said.

The 17-year-old attacker, who police believe belongs to a rival gang, jumped a perimeter fence and escaped on foot, said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Leonard Knight.

“The suspect walked up to the victim and asked if he belonged to the 18th Street gang,” Knight said. “The victim said, ‘Yes,’ and he (the attacker) shot him with a handgun.”

School Principal Marvin Starer said it took staff and campus security nearly 30 minutes to control the 2,400 students who were out of class at the time of the shooting and rushed toward the victim when shots rang out.

One 15-year-old girl who was standing nearby said, “We were screaming, ‘Help! Help!’ ”

Later, Starer, commenting on the incident, said it “was not that bad, given what goes on in this city.”

“This is the most violent incident we’ve had here since 1981,” Starer added. “Basically, we have good kids here and very few are involved in gang activity.”

In a separate incident, Inglewood High School was recessed for the day at about noon after dozens of fistfights involving black and Latino students broke out across campus after a Cinco de Mayo assembly was held in the school’s gym.

There were no arrests in the brawls. Several students suffered minor injuries and one girl fainted, Inglewood police officials said.

Students at the school said in interviews that some black students were angry over what they perceived to be favored treatment of their Latino classmates.

In addition, Latino students walked out of a Black History Month assembly at the school in February, students and school officials said. Returning the slight, black students walked out en masse during the Cinco de Mayo assembly.

The fighting started after a black student threw a book at a Latino student, police and students said. Within an hour, known gang members became involved in the melees, authorities said.

Inglewood High School Principal Larry Freeman, who is black, told a group of students involved in the fracas that he was embarrassed by their behavior.

“Anytime I can’t trust you, my best students, I’ve lost,” Freeman told the students involved in the fighting. “You acted like animals out there. You lost the one who loved you the most.”

At Jordan High School in Watts, about 50 black students and an equal number of Latinos exchanged insults and threats near the end of a midmorning snack break, campus officials said.

Nobody was injured and there were no arrests but about a dozen school security and Los Angeles police officers, backed up by a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter circling overhead, were called in to defuse the brief confrontation that attracted a crowd of more than 250 students in an outdoor lunch area near the center of campus.

Jordan Principal Grace B. Strauther said Tuesday’s standoff was the third and most vocal incident in the last week between a small group of blacks and Latinos at the school. Strauther and other school officials were not specific about the previous run-ins or what touched off Tuesday’s confrontation. Strauther would only say that it was a “misunderstanding that was racial in nature.”

But several students said Tuesday’s verbal scrap was initiated by blacks who once dominated enrollment at the 1,800-student inner-city campus, but now make up only 32% of the school’s population. Latino students, many of them from nearby South Gate, account for 68% of the school’s enrollment.

“Blacks feel like they are second-class citizens now that they are outsiders,” said Rocko, a black junior at Jordan who did not give his last name. “Some blacks think we ought to remind a few people this was once our campus.”

Strauther blamed both groups for the “tensions” in recent days.

“Until last week we’ve had no racial problems on this campus. It has been a smooth and quiet shift from a largely black to largely Latino school,” she said. “But now both groups say they have been neglected. . . . We’re talking to leaders of both groups.”

Shel Erlich, a Los Angeles Unified School District spokesman, said differences between the two groups have been “building up for a while this semester” and have flared over such issues as which event--Black History Month or Cinco de Mayo--is more important.

“We plan to keep a close eye on the situation,” said Erlich, adding that school officials may even call upon experts from a joint city-county human relations task force to ease friction between students if problems persist.

Times staff writers Sandy Banks and Marc Lacey contributed to this story.


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