After an ugly confrontation at a monthly noontime dance, many at John F. Kennedy High School feared that clashes over music had become part of a growing problem of racial divisiveness.
On Tuesday, music became part of the solution.
About 300 students danced and waved their hands in a crowded auditorium where an assembly designed to ease racial tension turned into a showcase of black and Latino rappers and comedians.
"We realized that bringing you guys speeches wasn't working," Community Youth Gang Services counselor Manuel Velasquez told a cheering audience. "People fell asleep or didn't pay attention. We decided that non-traditional ways are the best ways to do things."
Senior Tony Robles said the lunchtime dances became tense as Latino students, who wanted to listen to "house" or "techno" music, clashed with blacks who wanted to hear hip-hop and rap, leading the two groups to exchange racial slurs across the room. He asked Velasquez for help; Velasquez suggested the assembly.
Kennedy administrators invited individuals and representatives from student groups and several other San Fernando Valley high schools, including San Fernando, Granada Hills and Reseda.
Kennedy, which opened in 1971, has experienced no violent, race-related disturbances on campus, said Principal Andreda Pruitt. When the school opened, it was about 40% black and 60% white, she said. Now, blacks make up about 8% of the student body, Latinos about 57% and whites 23%--numbers that have changed little in the last five years.
"We didn't feel that we had a big racial problem on campus," Pruitt said. "But the students said they wanted to do something. It gave them a chance to think about these issues."
But as administrators downplayed racial tensions on campus, many students characterized them as pronounced.
Vince Carthron, 17, a member of the Black Student Union, said Latinos and blacks often don't associate with each other at school.
"We're not a melting pot here," Carthron said. "We're still like a salad being tossed. There are a lot of narrow-minded people here."
Before the show, dozens of students who weren't invited clustered at the door, frantically trying to gain admission with fake invitations.
Inside, Robles kicked off the two-hour show on a theme that was repeated throughout. "We don't have to be hugging and kissing and holding hands to get along," Robles said. "All you got to do is respect each other."
On a stage surrounded by international flags, rap artists Kurtis Blow, the Baka Boyz, Proper Dos and Hi-C peppered their songs with such messages as "Keep the Peace" and "Stop the Violence."
Disc jockey Frank Lozano prowled the room with a cordless microphone, asking students how to stop racism.
Junior Jimitria Smith said education must be part of the solution.
"It's a matter of respect," the 16-year-old said. "If you can't respect someone's culture, you can't respect them."
As part of the show, three comedians told jokes about racial insensitivity.
Gilbert Esquivel, a comedian from Pacoima, started his routine by jumping on the stage in a bright purple suit.
"I know you're thinking dang, look at him, he's part cholo, part Barney," Esquivel said, referring to a familiar children's character--a purple dinosaur--as students roared with laughter.
In a message that silenced the sometimes rowdy audience, a comedian from Brooklyn who calls herself Just June apologized to students.
"It's not your fault," she said about racism. "We have faulted; we have passed this legacy on to you. We have not taught you that you're Americans first of all before anything else."