It started as a teen-age prank: Dennis had hidden Albert's notebook. One boy started pushing, the other shoved back. Soon, the two high school students were pounding each other with their fists.
The scuffle, as Dennis sees it, went deeper than it seemed.
Dennis is black and Albert is Latino. In junior high, they had been friends.
But their friendship could not survive the tensions at Lawndale's Leuzinger High, where black and Latino youths are in a power struggle that in April sparked a melee involving dozens of students.
Dennis and Albert's conflict illuminates a problem gripping not only the Centinela Valley Union High School District, where the two teen-agers are enrolled, but other campuses throughout Southern California.
Immigration waves of the last decade have transformed whole communities, creating Asian and Latino enclaves where blacks and Anglos had once predominated. Unprepared for such massive population shifts, many public schools have become caldrons of prejudice, forcing parents and children alike into an uneasy coexistence.
"A far greater amount of school crime and violence is racially related than anyone wants to admit," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, an Encino organization that studies campus violence. "A lot of educators feel it makes them look bad if they admit they have a problem."
According to a 1989 survey by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, hate crimes and other acts of bigotry occurred at 37% of the 950 county schools that participated in the study. The problem, executive director Eugene Mornell said, appears to be growing worse.
In recent months, black and Latino students have clashed in Inglewood, while Latino, Vietnamese and Chinese students have fought in the San Gabriel Valley.
In February, about two dozen Latino and black students, some wielding pipes and chains, fought in an Oxnard high school auditorium during a lunch period, resulting in 18 suspensions, eight expulsions and one arrest for inciting a riot.
Orange County schools also have had incidents. At an Irvine high school last year, authorities found a "hit list" in a boy's restroom with the names of black students targeted for violence, according to Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
In February, a black student at a Mission Viejo high school received an anonymous hate letter sent to her school after she was praised in a Times article for several academic achievements. The letter's writer said in part that he had moved his family to South County to get away from ethnic groups, Kennedy said.
And throughout Orange County, "hate flyers" have been stuffed into student lockers by members of the White Aryan Resistance, a white supremacy group, Kennedy said.
"The closer proximity of different ethnic groups has resulted in a lot of conflict and tension being played out in the schools," Kennedy said. "The question for us in the county is how are we going to deal with it.
"We could either try to teach the students about diversity and how we can work together, or we could try to ignore this and run the schools as if it was as Orange County was 20 years ago, when it was nearly all white."
Orange County's student population has, indeed, undergone marked ethnic changes in the last five years. Minority student populations have increased in almost all 27 school districts, according to the Orange County Department of Education's 1990 Racial and Ethnic Survey. The survey shows that minority students make up 48% of the county's student population.
Much of the discord throughout the region is attributed to an intensifying rivalry among minority populations over scarce resources, chiefly jobs and housing. The tensions, according to UCLA urban geographer James H. Johnson Jr., are spilling over onto playgrounds and into classrooms.
"What is happening is these groups are forced to compete for resources off the same dry bone," said Johnson, who studies racial change in communities.
Nowhere are the population changes reflected more dramatically than in the classrooms of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school system, with 630,000 students. In 1970, fewer than half of its student were minorities. Today, nearly nine out of 10 are Latino, black or Asian-American.
The Centinela Valley Union High School District--which serves the South Bay communities of Lennox, Lawndale and Hawthorne--also has undergone radical shifts. During the past decade, Anglo enrollment has dropped by a third, accounting for 12% of the district's 6,000 students. Fifty-six percent of the students are Latino and 19% are African-American.
Racial unrest permeates the Centinela schools to a degree unparalleled elsewhere, engulfing not only students but teachers, administrators and parents in the tightly knit, three-campus district.
Charges have been hurled across school corridors. School board meetings have deteriorated into shouting matches, with black parents excoriating the predominantly Latino trustees.
A chill has fallen over faculty lounges, where one black teacher complains that Anglo colleagues practically "break their necks" turning away from her. Some blacks have taught classes while wearing buttons with slashes through the names of Anglo colleagues they accused of racism.
The teachers union president openly branded the then-district superintendent, who is African-American, as a "Stepin Fetchit"--a derogatory stereotype harking back to a subservient black character portrayed in the 1930s.
In the last two years, 13 black employees of the district have filed discrimination complaints with state and federal agencies. Among other things, the employees alleged that they were retaliated against for refusing to compile damaging information about black co-workers.
Although four complaints have been either settled or dismissed, nine others are still under review. In two, the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing has found sufficient preliminary evidence to accuse the district of fostering a "racially hostile work environment."
Last year, in protest over the resignation of a controversial black principal, about 2,500 students staged a two-day walkout that prompted the state Department of Education to investigate alleged racism in the district.
In more than 200 interviews with students, parents, teachers and other district employees, the investigative team found widespread evidence of bigotry.
Marlin Foxworth, who headed the investigation and is superintendent of the Rialto school district, said it was not unusual for the team to hear blacks referred to as "colored people" and "niggers."
"There was sufficient reason to think that knowledge about cultures was lacking," he said after the investigation. "I don't think that came just from the children."
Tensions have sharpened to such a degree this year at Hawthorne High School, about two miles from Leuzinger, that a freshman recently confided: "I'm afraid of getting stabbed or shot because I look Hispanic."
A few weeks ago, a black student jumped a Latino on campus, and other blacks and Latinos quickly prepared to join the brawl, she said. The only reason a larger confrontation was avoided was that as students headed for the parking lot to fight, they saw some police cars and went back to school, she said.
"Mexicans think they're the best race, and blacks think they're the best race, too," the freshman said. "They're trying to show off."
Hawthorne senior Norah Arroyo added: "We are fighting with each other to see who will be the next to move up a notch."
The April 18 riot at Leuzinger started as a fight between two girls, one black and the other Latino. At least two dozen other students rushed in, picking sides based on race. School officials suspended 25 youths, and four others were arrested for threatening bystanders with clubs.
A few months before the fight, student Lici Morales said, hostilities were running so high that students were constantly exchanging racial slurs.
"Now it's calmed down," she said, "but I know it's going to come back. It'll never stop because there will always be some racist people."
Law enforcement officials and others say that the Leuzinger brawl mirrored an ominous trend developing in the community, one that has now begun surfacing on the district's high school campuses. Youth gangs, fighting for turf in areas undergoing sweeping demographic changes, are forging racial alliances.
"Mexican gangs that normally battle amongst themselves are joining forces against black gangs," said Sheriff's Lt. Larry Schwartz, who serves in the Lennox station. "If the tension level is high enough to realign gang alliances, that's kind of a barometer of how much tension is there."
But as Hawthorne Police Sgt. Rick Shindle also said, "There seems to be a universal tension at the schools amongst blacks and Latinos, whether they're gang-affiliated or not."
Leuzinger 10th-grader Dennis Prince, who has broken off communications with his old friend Albert, said that the racial divisions are obvious to anyone who drops by his school around lunchtime: Latino students tend to congregate in the senior square while blacks mingle on the steps near the cafeteria.
Dennis and his friend, Morris Butler, were hanging out at a bus stop near campus after school recently. The two black students were explaining the unspoken rules of intercultural relations on their campus.
For instance, if a black and a Latino encounter each other outside of large groups, Dennis said, "we talk to each other."
But if a black student is seen with a group of Latinos, he is considered a "sellout" to his race, Morris added. The same goes for a Latino who hangs out with blacks.
"When you're around your friends, and they're around their friends, you got to act like you don't know each other," Morris said.
At the heart of this schoolyard etiquette are resentments so deep that a truce between some blacks and Latinos seems remote. Consider 11th-grader Lance Simmons' comment on the racial problems at Leuzinger: "They (Latinos) think that just because we used to be slaves, they can rule us."
District administrators, for their part, deny that racial problems exist on their campuses, a response that has only compounded the frustration of many parents and teachers seeking to improve intercultural relations.
"There is no racial tension," said veteran board member Michael Escalante. "How can you speak of racial (tension) when we have the mix (of students) we have? I am not a racist. I don't think anybody on the board is a racist."
Acting Supt. Tom Barkelew, who had been district superintendent in the 1970s and was rehired last year, goes further. He contends that the allegations of racism are simply lies advanced by a group of "conspirators," including the black employees who filed discrimination complaints, black community leaders and "people in state and national government."
Their goal, he insists, is to foment racial discord and "destabilize" the school board.
Much of the racial controversy plaguing the Centinela Valley school district has swirled around two men: former Supt. McKinley Nash and former Hawthorne High School Principal Kenneth Crowe--both of whom are black, and who were replaced by Anglos. Both have also filed discrimination complaints.
Nash was fired in July for reasons that the school board has yet to reveal. Crowe, who was demoted to a teaching position the same month, resigned to become principal of Inglewood High School.
With the surge in the area's Latino population, blacks "are starting to feel they are getting pushed out of the process," said Hawthorne attorney Jimmie Williams, a black who sits on his city's rent board. "When you push somebody, they are going to push back. And sometimes in fighting back, all you do is elevate the tensions."
While the departure of Nash and Crowe stirred controversy, their tenures were marred by conflicts of their own. Their challenge to the district's status quo gave rise to racial polarization, according to supporters and detractors.
"Basically, we turned into a Latino district," said a prominent Lawndale leader who did not want to be quoted by name. "But we had a black (superintendent) and a black principal. And I think there were people who didn't want blacks at the head of it. That is at the heart of the whole thing."
Embracing the school reform movement that was sweeping the nation, Nash and Crowe advocated educational changes that most agree alienated many teachers--the overwhelming majority of whom are Anglo.
Nash, for instance, pushed for an overhaul of the district's outdated math curriculum, prompting critics to label him "evil" and "dictatorial." Crowe sought to tighten attendance-taking procedures and summoned teachers of flunking students into parent conferences.
The two men, along with other black educators, tried to broaden the curriculum to make school more appealing to minority youngsters, many of whom are disproportionately represented in low-level classes and sparsely represented in advanced and college-preparatory programs.
Former Hawthorne High School English teacher Charles Prater, who is black, said that students were not required to read any works by minority authors when he joined the faculty in 1987. He suggested adding such books as "Native Son" by Richard Wright and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou, both of which were written by black authors and are widely regarded as classics.
Some colleagues, Prater said, "didn't want to have to teach anything like that in their classroom. These were teachers who never had exposure to anything written by anyone who was not a white author from the U.S. or Britain."
Prater said he began receiving hate mail. Other black teachers and administrators--including Nash and Crowe--became targets of racist cartoons or comments.
Crowe did not return a reporter's phone calls. His discrimination complaint is pending before the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which, based on a preliminary investigation, has formally accused the school board of encouraging racist attitudes.
Nash also declined to be interviewed. But in his pending complaint, he alleges that he was harassed and fired because he "opposed discriminatory treatment and practices against blacks." He also is suing the district for $375,000 in back wages.
Many of the district's Anglo teachers deny that they were resistant to curriculum changes, saying that the proposed reforms lacked substance and, in the case of the math program, resulted in large numbers of students failing.
"High expectations are definitely a part of motivating students," said Bill Dargen, chairman of Leuzinger's math department. "But you can't ask the impossible. A lot of our students give up when you challenge them at all."