As the percentage of minority students in Costa Mesa schools nears 50%, teachers are trying to learn about the many diverse cultures of their students.
Teachers from some of the city's schools gathered this week at Costa Mesa High School to receive advice and devise a plan that will promote cultural awareness and help quash prejudices in their classrooms.
"There seems to be a growing tension between various ethnic groups on campus," said Judi Redenbaugh, a French teacher at Costa Mesa High School.
Administrators want to stop it from spreading before it turns into a full-blown problem, she said.
"The thing that most occurs on the school grounds or in classes is ethnic slurs," Redenbaugh said. "Students of different ethnic groups are afraid of one another and tend to lash out with these slurs. Whenever that happens, there's a potential for hurt feelings or tensions. . . . We need to confront prejudice and deal with it."
Six teachers from Orange and Los Angeles counties put on a program called "A World of Difference," sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League of Southern California, for Costa Mesa teachers.
They played videos showing teen-agers' experiences with racism on campus and teachers learning what it feels like to be the objects of hate.
"Oftentimes, you don't know how people feel until you're in that situation," said Karen Robinson, a Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District teacher conducting the class.
Robinson told the teachers to be role models for their students. "If you aren't comfortable with ethnic jokes, don't say them," she said.
"Ignoring a racial slur means condoning it," Redenbaugh said. "We need to help the students value . . . appreciate . . . and acknowledge the diversity we have around us."
Shirley Shun, the only Asian-American teacher in the group, asked: "If we're disarming missiles, why can't we break down the walls between us?"
Shun, who teaches fourth grade at College Park Elementary School and is third-generation Chinese-American, was hired for the position two years ago.
At the time, she said, parents constantly asked her what her qualifications were.
"I think all kids should become aware of other's backgrounds and accentuate the positive to build self-esteem," she said. "If kids are happy with themselves, they can withstand any kind of negative remark toward their race."
That's how a Japanese-American student at Costa Mesa High feels. "You should be proud of who you are and what you believe in," Janet Kamikihara, 17, said. "Everybody has prejudices but I think it's stupid to judge somebody because of their race."
Her school started a new program this year called "Mesa United" to celebrate a different culture each month, Principal Mike Murphy said.
"It's important that we understand and celebrate all heritages because it's not so much a melting pot anymore--it's a salad bowl," he said.