When officials of Banning High in Wilmington announced last October that they would forfeit a game scheduled for Dorsey High's home field in Southwest Los Angeles because of security concerns, citing two violent incidents near the stadium in that month alone, it quickly became a cause celebre.
It evoked reaction from news media throughout the nation and even inspired Wednesday night's episode of a popular television show, "Beverly Hills 90210," about the unwelcome invasion of inner-city realities into one of the few remaining islands of Americana: high school football.
Amid the dark headlines, Dorsey's principal, Jerelene D. Wells, found a silver lining. Wells began to search for methods that would enable her school to capitalize on:
* How Dorsey solidified its stature last season as a football powerhouse by winning its second City 4-A Division championship in three years, beating, ironically, Banning in the title game at a neutral site, El Camino College in Torrance.
* How many experts predicted that this season's regularly scheduled game between the schools on Nov. 14 again would match two of the city's best teams.
* And how the game figured to be hyped by the media in search of one-year-later angles.
Capitalize was her word as she sat in her office at Dorsey last week, discussing the agreement that she and Banning's principal, Augustine Herrera, reached that will move the next two regular-season games between the schools to El Camino. They also have the option to play there the next two seasons if they agree that the experiment this year and next is successful.
But resentment and anger over last year's controversy linger in the Dorsey community. Some of the school's supporters who are critical of the agreement, most of whom are parents of football players or cheerleaders, say that Wells is bowing to Banning's fears of playing at Dorsey.
"Dr. Wells is a nice person, but I don't think that she should be giving in," said Gloria Guillory, whose son, Robert, is a Dorsey defensive back. "We're fighting for our community."
Guillory plans to be among those circulating a petition during tonight's game against San Pedro at Dorsey's Jackie Robinson Stadium. The petition will encourage parents to prohibit their children from playing against Banning if the game is not played at Dorsey.
"Our parents are intelligent, astute and reasonable," Wells said. "But some of them are dealing right now on an emotional level. I have the responsibility of looking at the total picture."
She sought the agreement with Banning, she said, because of Dorsey's emergence as one of the city's marquee football programs--alongside Banning and Carson--and as an attempt to reap the spoils.
"I understand the emotional ties to our stadium, but when you have a powerhouse, you've got to move into a different bracket," she said. "We were the champions last year. We've got a large following. We have to have a larger place in order for our fans to see the game.
"As a positive aside, we will be able to better fund the extensive sports programs that we want."
El Camino's seating capacity of 12,000 is about one-third larger than Jackie Robinson Stadium and Banning's home at Gardena High combined. Wells estimated that each school will earn $10,000 to $15,000 more by playing at El Camino each year instead of their home stadiums.
Considering the budget crisis confronting the L.A. Unified School District, Wells, in her 10th year as Dorsey's principal, presumably would be applauded by many of her beleaguered fellow administrators for making the most of a revenue source. She said that she also is seeking larger gyms for Dorsey's basketball team, expected to be among the city's best.
But some Dorsey supporters have rejected the principal in favor of the principle. Trouble and disagreement are nothing new at Dorsey.
On Oct. 4, 1991, gunfire erupted during a game between Dorsey and Crenshaw, causing minor wounds to two students from bullets that ricocheted across the field.
Three weeks later, Joe Dominguez, the coach at Banning at the time, with the support of his players, decided not to go to Dorsey for a game scheduled Nov. 1.
By 10:30 the next morning, Dominguez reported that he had received supporting letters from 35 parents.
That position was reinforced four days before the game was scheduled to be played when a Dorsey student, said to be a gang member, was shot once in the head while standing near the field, where a physical education class was in progress.
After a meeting at Banning that night involving about 150 parents, boosters and school district officials, the decision was made to forfeit. It was Banning's only loss until the Dec. 14 title game, which was won by Dorsey, 33-30.
Believed to be the first time a City Section game was forfeited because of the fear of violence, the story attracted reporters not only from the local media but also from publications such as Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post and USA Today.
It was not the last time during the 1991-'92 academic year that Dorsey found itself cast in a negative light.
In March, a 17-year-old Dorsey baseball player, Wilford Wright III, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head while playing Russian roulette aboard the team bus.
A month later, the baseball coach, former Dodger and Angel Derrel Thomas, who was on the bus when Wright shot himself, was charged with possessing drugs for sale. Thomas is awaiting trial.
The incidents combined to give Dorsey an image as L.A.'s version of "Blackboard Jungle."
The reality is less dramatic. During a recent open house, the school was quiet and orderly, although classrooms were overcrowded. Students and teachers were friendly and security monitors polite.
That security is necessary is a sign of the times, but it is hardly unique to Dorsey within the district. Wells did not deny that some gang members attend Dorsey but said that, with a few exceptions, the school is treated as neutral territory.
The area surrounding Dorsey looks like the suburbs compared to some neighborhoods in other large cities. But residents warn that one should not be careless there, particularly at night. But it also is near the middle-to-upper-class Baldwin Hills and Crenshaw districts.
"You couldn't imagine a more serene place," a reporter from the Washington Post wrote last year, commenting on the palm trees and crowded tennis and basketball courts near the school.
"It was considered the Westside when I went there, one of the affluent schools," said State Senator Diane Watson, who attended Dorsey in the '50s. "It's now an urban school. Urban sprawl, South-Central and changing demographics have caught up with us. It's a problem.
"But in spite of the last few years, Dorsey has a good history and a proud legacy. It's a well run, orderly school. I want the media to come in and find out what Dorsey does well, not just when there is a story that's negative."
The California Dept. of Education's school performance report, most recently compiled in 1989-90, reveals that Dorsey is not immune to problems often associated with inner-city schools, including a high dropout rate and low standardized test scores.
But Wells counters with a long list of accomplishments, such as successes in advanced placement tests, academic decathlons, mock trials and poetry contests. About 90% of Dorsey's magnet students attend college, she said, and about 60% of the other seniors enroll in some sort of postgraduate training, whether it be at a community college, university or trade school.
One of her most difficult tasks during the last year, she said, has been explaining to students why those strengths have not been emphasized by the media.
"Our students ask, 'Why is the media reporting things around our school when the same thing happens in other schools and is not reported?' " she said. "It's because we were used to raise the consciousness level of the nation. We don't like it, but we have accepted it.
"Anyone who is really aware knows it is not just a Dorsey problem. I'm talking about violence in our cities. This is a city-wide and a national problem. We're living in a different time. It affects us. It affects all schools. Until all of us, no matter where we live, can address that, it will continue to affect us all."
Another factor, she suggested, is that almost three-fourths of Dorsey's students are African-Americans. Most of the rest are Latino.
"We are an African-American school that's achieving, and sometimes you can expect some kind of knocks," she said. "It's hard to help the students understand because I don't understand, either. But we have to talk about it because that's one of the realities that they will have to deal with in life."
Many of Dorsey's most celebrated achievements have occurred on the football field. The Dons won the 4-A championship in 1989, a breakthrough that some of the school's supporters claim would have occurred sooner if district athletic administrators had not conspired with game officials to assure that Carson and Banning remained on top because of the large crowds they attracted to title games between them.
Lee Joseph, a former district athletic administrator who remains responsible for assigning officials, denies any such conspiracy.
Joseph eliminated much of the perceived bias by assigning split crews to some games and prohibiting one South Bay referee from working games in which inner city schools are involved.
Before he took that action, Dorsey lost to Banning at Gardena, 21-20, in a 1990 City 4-A semifinal game that included several controversial calls against the visitors. In frustration, several Dorsey fans ran onto the field at game's end and rushed the officials. Players and coaches from both teams became entangled in the resulting brawl.
After reviewing the film of the incident, district athletic administrators suspended four Dorsey players. No Banning players were punished.
Dorsey Coach Paul Knox said he believes that incident was at the heart of Banning's reluctance to play last season at Jackie Robinson Stadium.
"From early on in the season, we heard that Banning had planned not to play, although their coach never said anything to my face," Knox said. "We heard they were upset about the melee that had broken out in our last meeting and thought we had some retaliation planned.
"Of course, that is ridiculous. As a coaching staff, we would never sit down and plot out a retaliation plan."
Repeated phone calls from The Times to Herrera, the Banning principal, were not returned. Herrera has told other publications that he does not want to talk about last year's controversy.
Dominguez said last year that concern about the possibility of another brawl was one of the factors in his reluctance to play at Dorsey. But it was not until gangs began trading gunfire outside Jackie Robinson Stadium during the Dorsey-Crenshaw game last season that he decided to broach the subject to his players and their parents.
No one denies that the Dorsey-Crenshaw game is a lightning rod for trouble. In an attempt to avoid an incident, last year's game was moved from night to afternoon. It was not the solution.
"That's where the conflict always came, in the Crenshaw-Dorsey game," said Sharmon Shah, a star running back at Dorsey last season who now plays for UCLA. "Dorsey is in Bloods' turf, and Crenshaw is in Crips' turf.
"The conflict wasn't with the people in the school. It would be with the people around the school who always just came to that game. All the Bloods would come to that game just because of Crenshaw. They wanted to see some Crips.
"I didn't expect any shooting last year because it was in the daytime," Shah said. "But when the game's been at Dorsey at night, the last two or three times there's been some sort of shooting. But that was usually somebody shooting in the air. This was the first time that somebody actually shot at somebody."
Speaking volumes about experience one gains attending school in the inner-city, Shah said, "It wasn't too much of a panic."
During Dorsey's most recent home game, two weeks ago against Fairfax, about 15 uniformed LAPD officers combined with five or six in plainclothes and several of the high school's staff and faculty members to provide security. Anyone entering was subject to a search with hand-held metal detectors. There were no incidents.
"The school does a pretty fair job of security," said Arthur Holmes, an LAPD spokesman and Dorsey alumnus. "We're largely there to back them up."
Asked if he believed Banning would have put its players or fans in jeopardy by playing at Dorsey last year, Holmes said: "Banning is largely an area for Bloods' gangs. So there's no problem there. And there's no geographical rivalry. They had nothing to worry about."
Dorsey supporters said that they want an opportunity to prove that by welcoming Banning this year to Jackie Robinson Stadium.
"We want them to come to our home so that we can treat them hospitably," said Roslyn Hairston, whose daughter, Danisha, is a Dorsey cheerleader.
"It also would give us back our self-esteem. What do we say to our kids? 'We can make more money at El Camino, so forget about your dignity?' It's not a Banning issue. It's an issue of pride. Money is not the most important thing in life."
After Banning had forfeited last year's game, the CIF City Section's Interscholastic Athletics Committee ruled that the school would have to play this year's game, originally scheduled for Banning's home field, at Dorsey.
Critics of the subsequent agreement between the principals contend that Banning should be required to play at Dorsey. Not only do they seek retribution for the embarrassment suffered by Dorsey last year because of Banning's refusal to play there, they also want to prove to Banning that it has nothing to fear at their stadium.
"We respect our administrators, but you can't put a price on dignity or respect," said Ava Shah, former president of Dorsey's booster club and the mother of the team's starting quarterback, Sultan Ali.
"If the game is played at El Camino, we're boycotting. Our children won't show up. We're telling our administrators that this game will be played at Jackie Robinson.
"Or at Waikiki, Hawaii . . . at their expense."
Wells said that she has discussed the idea of moving games against Banning to El Camino with parents since June and says the majority support her.
Guillory, who is circulating the petition, disagreed. When asked how many parents she believes will sign the petition, she said, "Every parent who has a child on the team."
So far, the parents have been able to wage their campaign without distracting the players, who will try tonight to improve their record to 2-1. The team's star receiver, Antonio Carrion, said that he was not aware that the game has been moved until he was told by a reporter this week.
"I don't think the game should be moved," he said. "A home game is important to a team. But we're not spending a lot of time talking about it."
Neither is the coach, Knox, but he made it clear that he also would rather play the game at home.
"I plan to stay out of any tug of war," he said. "I will do whatever our administration decides.
"But all along, the coaching staff felt like we wanted to play this year's game at home. I do think those parents should stick with their opinions. Basically, they're fighting for what they believe, just like the Banning parents did last year."
Dorsey, like all district schools, has rapidly dwindling resources. Athletics is one of the few after-school activities that has not had its budget cut. But there is no guarantee that it will continue that way.
"Our sports program cost $55,000 last year," Wells said. "We brought in $26,000. We had to come up with $30,000. There's no guarantee we will be able to do that every year.
"If we aren't able to bring in the kind of resources we need, we're not going to be able to fund our 15 sports. We will have to start to limit the number of players on our football team. Right now, we say that anyone who wants to play can suit up. Now, who's going to tell those children that they can't play because we don't have the money?
"With this media hype, it's presented us with an opportunity. We can't continue to look back if we're going to continue to meet the challenges presented to us now and for the future. If we want to keep the athletic program small, that's one thing. But I don't think that's what our parents want."
And as for some of the parents' complaints that Dorsey was sacrificing some of its dignity?
"I feel that we handled ourselves with dignity and with self-respect last year," she said. "And we won the championship against Banning. That was a moral victory. This year, we need to win a financial victory."
Times staff writer Chris Baker contributed to his story.