After-School Fight Blamed on Ethnic Tension : Unrest: A Westminster High student was knifed when Latino and Asian youngsters scuffled near the campus. But some authorities feel that race wasn't involved.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An after-school brawl that led to the stabbing of a Westminster High School student Tuesday was probably the result of ethnic tensions, officials said Wednesday.

Westminster Principal Bonnie Maspero acknowledged that the afternoon fight in a church parking lot a block from the school was likely sparked by friction between Asians and Latinos, who make up about equal portions of the 2,400-student population.

"There are probably enough cultural differences between the two groups to lead to name-calling and fights, but I don't necessarily see that as different than anywhere else," Maspero said.

Maspero noted that the numbers of both Latino and Asian students have risen dramatically in the past 10 years. But the increase in Asian students has outstripped that of Latinos, and that dynamic may have exacerbated tensions over the years, she said.

"We recognize that when you mix a number of people from a variety of cultures, there will be slights and we have to work with the community to deal with that," Maspero said. "While we have programs to combat tension, you are not going to cure every ill either."

But police said they were not sure if the fight, which left a Latino youth slightly wounded, was racially motivated.

"We feel there wasn't enough (evidence) to substantiate that," said Lt. Richard Main, who added that the fight was the first reported to police this year at the campus, which has suffered in recent years from rising gang violence, overcrowding and a high dropout rate.

Nevertheless, police patrols around the school will be increased, he said.

The brawl occurred at 2:53 p.m. in the parking lot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 14271 Locust St., where about 50 youths from the high school had gathered after class.

As police units arrived, the students fled over walls and down the streets.

Left at the scene was a 16-year-old Latino student who sustained a superficial knife wound in his upper left arm and a puncture wound in the left shoulder blade, Main said. The boy, whose name was withheld because of his age, was treated at Humana Hospital-Westminster and released Tuesday afternoon, authorities said.

The youth told officers that he was waiting for a school bus when he was surrounded by five Asian students, Main related.

Investigators were not sure how many students were involved or whether the assault was planned. However, a knife, chunks of concrete and sticks were found in the parking lot. A check of local hospitals turned up no other victims.

School officials say the incident caught them by surprise because the school year had begun quietly and also because the school had implemented cultural-awareness programs designed to ease tensions.

"The kids have been integrating on campus and at extracurricular events, so this was a surprise to us," Maspero said.

On Wednesday, city police and school officials armed with walkie-talkies made extra rounds on school grounds and the surrounding area to guard against further trouble.

One student said that an Asian and a Latino student who had been involved in the previous day's skirmish nearly got into another fight in school and were taken to the office. But no other problems were reported and some students had not heard about the church-yard fight.

Huan Nguyen, a 15-year-old sophomore, said he witnessed events before the brawl and saw a group of Latino youths "picking on" a single Asian student, challenging him to fight.

The Asian student got help from his friends, and trouble broke out, Nguyen added.

He said he does not consider racial tension to be a major problem at the school but admitted there is occasional friction between Latinos and Asians.

Sophomore Bryan Shrum, who is Anglo, claimed that a Vietnamese student stabbed him with a pen during a fight and said some Asian students are "troublemakers."

Despite reports from school officials, one police officer who regularly patrols the school area and who was at the scene of the fight said he did not believe it was a racial confrontation.

"Everyone assumed it was a racial thing, and it wasn't," said the officer, who asked not be identified. "We had two jerks wanting to fight, and everyone went to see."

Maspero said the school has initiated various programs aimed at diffusing tensions and preventing outbreaks of ethnic violence. She said, for example, that activities are publicized and announced in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, and the school is involved in parent education programs and a program that trains students to act as peer counselors.

However, some educators say that neither Westminster High School nor most other schools have done enough to deal with the county's rapidly changing demographics.

They also said that the level of ethnic tension and resulting violence has risen on nearly all campuses.

"It's generally rising evenly throughout the county, but people are not as aware of it as they should be," said Frank Angelo, a County Department of Education official who coordinates a school-safety program.

And some human relations experts say that schools such as Westminster have not taken advantage of programs designed to prevent conflict.

"What Westminster as well as other schools need to do is utilize the resources out there," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the County Human Relations Commission.

Kennedy cited the Hands Across the Campus program sponsored by the American Jewish Committee; the commission's own interethnic program, and a Department of Justice-sponsored cultural-awareness program, noting that Westminster school officials had declined to participate in all three.

Westminster High officials could not be reached for comment on Kennedy's remarks. The school had initially been involved in the Hands Across the Campus program but dropped out, citing a lack of funds, one program coordinator said.

"It's a question of leadership and that starts with the superintendents and the school boards," Kennedy said. "I think (administrators) are reticent because they don't want to cause a scare or draw attention to their schools, but you are going to find the same problems everywhere."

He added: "We've had a radical changeover in the last decade and if this issue is not dealt with, (more violent incidents) are as predictable as sunrise."

Times staff writer James Gomez contributed to this report.

After School Brawl

Westminster High School officials say racial tensions probably were to blame for an off-campus fight Tuesday between Asian and Latino students. Both groups have grown dramatically at the campus over the past ten years.

1981-'82

White: 65.6%

Latino: 11.2%

Asian: 17.2%

Black: 0.5%

Other: 5.6%

Total Students: 2,886

1991-'92

Latino: 25.3%

Asian: 36.3%

Black: 1.1%

Other: 5.4%

White: 31.3%

Total Students: 2,498

Source: Huntington Beach Union High School District

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