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Racial Discord at County Schools Near Boiling Point : Diversity: More programs are needed to ease students’ ethnic animosities, say educators and social scientists.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“It’s the Vietnamese who cause the problems,” explained the young Latino, a Westminster High School sophomore who was waiting off campus for a friend to hurry home. “They’ll jump on you for no reason and they harass everyone.”

Around the corner, a group of Asian students told a different tale: “The Mexicans are no good,” said one.

“They call us names and they have a lot of weapons so they hurt people,” added another, a recent immigrant from Vietnam who said he used to hang out with all races when he entered school a year ago, but not anymore.

Such comments, echoing like an uncomfortable replay from a racially divided past, have become all too familiar on local school grounds, say educators and social scientists.

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Sadly, it is not idle chatter.

Two fights this week near Westminster High School, sparked by animosity between Asian and Latino students, illuminate a potentially explosive problem at campuses throughout Orange County, where the ethnic makeup of students has undergone profound change.

Orange County as a whole has seen dramatic increases in the numbers of Asian and Latino immigrants, especially in some North County cities, where many neighborhoods have been transformed. But nowhere is the demographic shift more apparent than in the schools. Students at Tustin High, for example, speak 28 different languages or dialects. At Anaheim’s Magnolia High, 44 ethnic cultures are represented.

Ethnic minorities now make up nearly half of the county’s 376,000-student public school population with increases in nearly all 27 school districts, according to the Orange County Department of Education’s 1990 Racial and Ethnic Survey.

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During the past decade, Anglo enrollment has dropped from 71% to 53%. Asian enrollment has increased from 8% to 13% and Latinos account for 32% of county students, up from 19% in 1981.

Some school districts have experienced variations on the pattern. At schools such as Sunny Hills High in Fullerton, Fountain Valley High and Costa Mesa High, Asian students now outnumber their Latino counterparts.

The dramatic shifts have left many school officials unprepared for the resulting cultural clashes.

“People are just becoming aware of what’s going on and don’t realize the level of hostility and conflict that occurs on campus,” said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which has formulated and helped to implement a number of diversity programs at county schools.

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“Some people here still hang on to the perception of a white homogenous community,” added Lucy Vezzuto, coordinator of the county Department of Education’s Safe School program. “We’re just beginning to reach out and make connections wherever we can.”

Many educators worry that grade school and high school campuses increasingly form the front lines in a society of clashing cultures, with prejudice, hostility and violence spilling over into playgrounds and classrooms.

Orange County schools have already experienced a number of racially related incidents, and many say the level of tension and violence is on the rise.

“There is definitely more tension and it is getting worse in direct relation to the changing makeup of the county,” said Kennedy, whose commission tracks hate crimes countywide.

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The discord has cut across racial and ethnic lines:

* Students at several campuses have found so-called “hate flyers” stuffed into their lockers by members of the White Aryan Resistance, a white supremacist group.

* In February, a black student at Mission Viejo High received a hate letter after she was publicly praised for her academic achievement.

* At an Irvine high school, authorities found a “hit list” with the names of black students targeted for violence.

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* Black and white students at Tustin High yelled racial slurs at each other during a talent competition in the gymnasium last year.

* During the Desert Storm offensive in January, some students at Ocean View High in Huntington Beach put up a sign in the parking lot that said: “NUKE IRAQ! KILL ALL TOWEL HEADS!”

* In last week’s Westminster High incidents, three Asian students were beaten by a group of eight Latinos armed with a broomstick and chain two days after a Latino student received a stab wound in a fight with three Asian students. A 15-year-old Latino student has been arrested in the beating incident, and three 15-year-old Vietnamese students have been arrested in connection with the stabbing.

School officials said both attacks, which police believe involved members of rival street gangs, may have been racially motivated, sparked by friction between the two groups.

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Social scientists say it is not unusual for ethnic groups living in close proximity to experience such frictions, which can be aggravated by cultural and language differences.

In Orange County, nearly 25% of the students--one out of every four--have limited English skills, with the numbers of such students nearly doubling in the last five years from 47,500 to 93,000, according to state Department of Education figures. Statewide, about 20% of all students are limited in English.

“When you encounter people with different values or family orientation, there is a fear of the unknown,” Vezzuto said. “And if you arrive here brand new from a country, you would want to be with people you can understand.”

But cultural animosities can be most unsettling for youngsters, who are more likely to be influenced by stereotypes they hear from grown-ups, at home or through the media, and less likely to be able to deal with hostility.

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“Peer group pressure at this age is at its highest, plus there is natural alienation going on--there are some real problems and issues these kids are confronting,” said James Fulton, manager of educational demographics for the state Department of Education.

Adolescents are also more prone to using slang and profanity in their speech, further inflaming hostilities.

“There is a lot of inciting language and misinterpretation among youngsters,” said Harriet Doss Willis, director of the Los Alamitos-based Southwest Center for Educational Equity, a federally funded center that assists schools in California, Nevada and Arizona on diversity matters.

“Each group has its own language that is not purely native or purely English and it is probably used to jeer at each other.”

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Carmen Tamayo, an 18-year-old Irvine High senior, said she and her group of Latino friends have often encountered harsh words on campus.

“One time, a white guy called my friend an ‘orange picker,’ ” Tamayo said. “They’ve also called us ‘beaners’ and ‘stupid Mexicans.’ ”

A group of young people eating lunch at a nearby Pizza Hut were able to rattle off a list of racially insensitive names that they said are often heard around school aimed at, among others, Iranians, Japanese and Filipinos.

“It’s obviously a serious problem we have here,” said Doss Willis. “All of these groups believe the worst about each other unless they are given a chance to sit down in a calm setting to find out who they are talking to.”

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Doss Willis said that schools need to take a more aggressive approach in tackling the problem.

Although state educational guidelines mandate that multicultural issues be addressed in the social science curriculum at all levels, most districts lack a coherent plan that specifically addresses racial animosity.

Some county schools have implemented programs designed to promote diversity and ease tension but such efforts are scattered. Among them are:

* Irvine High, which has implemented an ethnic advisory forum.

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* La Quinta High in Garden Grove, which has developed an award-winning ethnic relations council.

* Ocean View High in Huntington Beach, which is involved in the Hand Across the Campus program sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

* Tustin High, which is offering a new class on race relations with a community service requirement.

* Orange, Fullerton, Los Alamitos, Villa Park and Fountain Valley high schools as well as El Modena High in Orange and Santiago High in Garden Grove, all of which multicultural training sessions conducted by the Human Relations Commission. Sunny Hills High in Fullerton will offer such sessions in two weeks.

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* San Juan Capistrano Elementary and South Junior High in Anaheim, which are using the World of Difference curriculum, developed by the Anti-Defamation League.

* Several middle schools in Irvine and La Habra, which have adopted a conflict resolution program designed by a San Francisco dispute resolution group.

* Two junior high schools in Placentia and Anaheim, which have a county-sponsored anti-gang, anti-bias program.

* Two San Juan Capistrano elementary schools, which have adopted special multicultural curriculums.

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Other programs are threatened by budget cuts. At Westminster High, for example, one well-received multicultural program was dropped because of a lack of funds. Officials at the school say they have adopted other programs to promote racial understanding and the Parent-Teacher Assn. reportedly discussed new ways to approach the problem at a meeting last week.

In the wake of the racial incident at Tustin High, officials there formed an ethnic advisory council, hired additional bilingual personnel and put the entire staff through two days of sensitivity training.

Principal Duffy Clark said that other educators must bring better leadership to the task of improving ethnic relations.

“We found that unless we actually implemented things and put our money where our mouth was . . . we were going to go nowhere,” Duffy said. “We really have to make a better effort to listen to kids, write down their concerns and come back and tell them what we’re going to deliver for them.

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Times correspondent Greg Hernandez contributed to this report.


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