Westside teen-agers are taking a big step to cope with racial tension--by talking about it.
Students from ethnically diverse Fairfax and Hamilton high schools met last weekend to discuss race relations at a retreat sponsored by the National Conference (formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews). The three-day retreat, held at a campsite in Glendale, is part of a yearlong program to reduce racial tensions at area high schools.
Although participants generally reported the meeting was illuminating, a few complained about the rigid structure imposed by adult organizers. But no one debated the need for dialogue.
"This gave students an opportunity to cop to secretly held feelings they don't often have an opportunity to express," said Lecia Brooks, a program specialist at the National Conference who coordinated the event.
Both Fairfax and Hamilton have been shaken by violence in recent years. In October, 1992, just months after citywide rioting, police and throngs of parents gathered at Hamilton after a minor melee had erupted between black and Latino students.
At Fairfax the following January, a visiting student accidentally shot and killed a 16-year-old classmate. The death marked the first time a Los Angeles Unified School District student had been killed in class and revived a debate over whether metal detectors should be used to screen students for weapons.
A diverse student body at both schools makes them fertile ground for a discussion of race relations. With an enrollment of 1,722, Fairfax is 39% Latino, 28% white and 16% black. Hamilton, with 1,579 students, is 43% black, 39% Latino and 10% white.
Against this backdrop, teachers at the two schools, as well as at San Gabriel High School, invited the National Conference to develop a program promoting racial understanding. Each school has implemented the program as part of ethnic studies or literature classes.
Seventy-nine students participated in the Glendale retreat, which was part of the program. Organizers developed a number of exercises to make students aware of their racial attitudes and biases. In one exercise, Brooks said, students had a "structured speak-out" in which they went around the room and told what they found most shocking or irritating about people of another color.
Some students said the exercises, while well-intentioned, were "superficial."
"Things were too structured," said Charki Sanders, a 16-year-old Hamilton junior who has a white mother and a black father. "At one point, we asked if we could have an open forum, and (the organizers) denied (the request) and said they weren't prepared. Well, I think the truth comes out when things aren't prepared."
Yet students still appreciated a chance to clear the air.
"Most people just came to hear about one another," said Gina Mirmova, a 17-year-old Fairfax senior whose family immigrated from Russia. "There was no tension with each other. All of us felt equal."