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An Uncertain Future : Multicultural High School Program in O.C. at Risk

TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH--After the Desert Storm offensive began in January, some students put up a big sign in the parking lot outside Ocean View High School that proclaimed: “NUKE IRAQ! KILL ALL THE TOWEL HEADS!”

Such disparaging remarks weren’t confined to outside the school. Anti-Middle Eastern epithets, jokes and other remarks, fueled by the Persian Gulf War, were widely heard in the hallways, even some of the classrooms.

So the school’s student multicultural advisory panel sponsored a forum for students and teachers to discuss the feelings of Middle Easterners and other ethnic groups who had become targets of such verbal attacks.

“People didn’t seem to realize how cruel the remarks were. It was more a case of insensitivity than something intentional,” said Tanya Melendez, 17, a panel member.

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Added panel member Orna Ahoobim, 17, who is an Iranian immigrant: “The discussions gave us a better understanding of how these things can evolve. We got the point across that these are bigoted expressions and should not be tolerated.”

It was for just such racial insensitivities that the American Jewish Committee’s Orange County Chapter launched its ethnic studies program, Hands Across the Campus (HAC), two years ago at Ocean View and two other Huntington Beach Union High School District schools--Westminster and Fountain Valley. The student advisory panel is an offshoot of the program.

Although there are programs in other schools, the American Jewish Committee’s effort is the only one of its kind in Orange County: a high school program devoted wholly to multicultural issues, according to the Orange County Department of Education.

But the program, which has had a history of limited financial support at all three schools, faces an uncertain future this year.

Ocean View and Fountain Valley school officials hope to at least blend some aspects of the program into the regular curriculum. Westminster dropped the program entirely last year.

But those who monitor hate-crimes and racially motivated incidents say that statistics bear out that more, not less, needs to be done in the schools to combat racial intolerance.

In the first six months of 1991, 31 “hate-related” incidents, including assaults or vandalism against Middle Easteners, blacks, Asians, Jews and gays, were reported to the Orange County Human Relations Commission. The previous numbers were far lower: 16 in 1990, 14 in 1989 and 20 in 1988.

Explained Doris Goldman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Irvine-based Orange County Chapter: “Programs like ours weren’t created only to put out fires. This is essentially a preventive effort--to reach people before a crisis can develop.”

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Ocean View High typifies schools at the crossroads of rapid ethnic-population change, a trend heightened by the huge immigrant influx that has swept across California and other U.S. regions.

Only a decade ago, Ocean View was a predominantly white suburban school. The enrollment of ethnic minorities then was less than 14%. But today it is nearly 47%, mostly Latinos (20%) and Asians (18%), but also including blacks, American Indians and Middle Easterners.

This change may not be as dramatic as at schools where whites are now clearly the statistical minority. At Westminster High, ethnic minorities constitute 66% of the student body.

Nonetheless, the reasons for racial conflict at all schools with rising enrollments of ethnic minorities are roughly the same.

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“The big increase (in ethnic-minorities population) seems so sudden, so threatening to a lot of people. Their mind set is what it was 10 or 20 years, their perception of certain ethnic groups still so stereotypical,” said John Myers, who for the past eight years was principal at Ocean View and is now principal at Huntington Beach High.

The 2,000-student school doesn’t have a reputation as having a racism problem. It hasn’t seen the violence or other major conflicts that are often experienced at schools with rising enrollments of ethnic minorities, administrators and students said.

“There’s been no real gang activity on campus, no groups here. Sure, there’s a real tension between (ethnic) groups, a lot of misconceptions, but we haven’t had any big fights,” said Chris Wallace, who was a member of the HAC-established student advisory panel.

Melendez, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, put it this way: “At Ocean View, it’s still mostly at the level of thoughtless comments, stupid jokes and gross stereotyping.”

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But, HAC organizers explained, the whole point was to bring their program to a school like Ocean View before ethnic conflicts approach the boiling point.

The Ocean View effort is modeled after HAC programs that the American Jewish Committee launched at five high schools in Los Angeles in 1981 and two high schools in Miami in 1983.

The key academic element is a multicultural relations course offered as an elective--the only such regular class in Orange County public schools, county officials said. At Ocean View, 30 students met twice a week for 2 1/2 hours, studying the history of America as a pluralistic society, including the great immigrant waves, the roots of prejudice and discrimination, and the growth of the civil rights movement.

“Naturally, we want students to know their own history and to be proud of it,” said Gayle Byrne, HAC teacher at Ocean View, who works closely with the school’s other community and ethnic outreach projects.

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“But at the same time, we want them to know about other cultures--how they developed and what they, too, contributed to our society,” added Byrne, whose students also organized regular forums on the personal experiences of ethnic and cultural minorities, especially those at Ocean View.

The program was originally financed by $24,000 from the American Jewish Committee. However, the committee was unable to fund all three school programs after the first year, so it sought private donations and asked the schools to help out.

Westminster High then dropped its HAC multicultural class after one year, citing lack of funds. The school has no plans at this time to restore the course.

Fountain Valley High (which has a 36% ethnic-minorities enrollment) also dropped its class after spring 1990, but, thanks to a $2,500 grant from the Pacific Mutual Foundation, the elective course was reinstated for the spring 1991 semester.

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While neither Ocean View High nor Fountain Valley High has the money to resume the full elective class this school year, each will seek district approval to continue its HAC multicultural studies but merged into regular social-studies classes.

The same cost-saving proposal is being considered for some schools in the Tustin, Irvine and Garden Grove districts, American Jewish Committee chapter organizers said.

To HAC supporters, including those at Fountain Valley and Westminster Highs, the program has shown itself to be not only timely but also a highly effective way to ease tensions.

At Ocean View, for example, Myers cites the anti-Middle Eastern issue last January--and the subsiding of taunts and disparaging jokes--as an example of the ombudsman role of the program’s 25-student multicultural panel.

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Another issue brought to the attention of Myers was the objections of non-Christians over the installing of Christmas trees and similar decorations in the classrooms last December.

“A lot of us felt it (Christmas trees) belonged in someone’s home but not in a classroom. We felt the beliefs of others were being totally ignored,” said Ahoobim.

Panel member Wallace said he and other students underwent a real change of attitude over the Christmas dispute.

“At first, we thought it was a trivial issue--I mean, what’s the big deal? A tree is a tree,” he said. “But we were taking it for granted. We lived in our own little cultural cubicles. We didn’t realize how deeply it offended people of other faiths.”

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Ocean View’s discussions over Christmas trees had a quiet impact: Some teachers took down trees in their classrooms, while others added class discussions on how other religious groups observed their major holidays.

Far more common, Myers and teacher Gayle Byrne said, were similar frank exchanges of cultural views and emotions--among teachers as well as students.

“It’s sitting down and just talking it out. It’s bringing together people, even those of totally opposite views, and seeing past the outrageous stereotypes,” said Byrne, who is also a teacher-training coordinator for the American Jewish Committee chapter.

Myers put it this way: “You can’t easily quantify the effectiveness of this kind of highly sensitive program. But at the gut level, all of us feel it has helped lessen the tension significantly. We’ve seen it in action. We know it works.”

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