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COVER STORY : Teaching Tolerance : High Schools Implement Programs to Help Ease Racial Tensions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

High schools are tense places these days. An insult or nasty look sparks a fight between two students, their friends jump in, racial epithets fly and anger explodes.

All over the South Bay, students, teachers and principals say they sense heightened racial tensions, increased animosity and a lightning-fast tendency for students to use their fists when confronted with a problem.

“It seems to me that there is just very little tolerance for anything,” said Leuzinger High School Principal Sonja Davis. “It’s as though we have a whole generation of kids that just has no tolerance.”

Some high schools have seen an increase in racial incidents while others seem to be plagued by a persistent level of tension between African Americans, Latinos, Asians and other ethnic groups. Gang feuds that begin on the streets sometimes end up in school. And, when two students of different ethnic backgrounds clash, their friends and other students often interpret the fight as a racial one, even if it wasn’t.

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But South Bay high schools are trying to do something about the tension and sporadic violence. Officials have established programs to teach students to respect themselves and other cultures and have asked student leaders--those respected by athletes, artists, gang members or student representatives--to exercise their influence and restrain their peers.

Three high schools implementing such programs are Banning, Leuzinger and Hawthorne, each of which has had to deal with its share of problems.

At Banning, a Los Angeles Unified School District campus in Wilmington, 250 to 300 black and Latino students recently faced off, shouting racial slurs and threats. Many of the students who started the shouting match were transferred from the school, and several African American students, most of whom live in Carson, opted to transfer to Carson High School.

Recognizing that racial tension is a problem throughout its schools, Los Angeles school officials have created a student affairs committee that will hold public hearings on ethnic tension in the fall.

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At Leuzinger in Lawndale, in Davis’ first year as principal, she has seen a soaring number of suspensions due to fights--many of them battles between ethnic groups.

At Hawthorne High, where former Principal Kenneth Crowe recently won a $425,000 settlement against the Centinela Valley Union High School District for racial discrimination, students say the atmosphere at the school is racially charged.

The three schools are among many in the South Bay where the ethnic makeup has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years, and racial tension has accompanied the changes.

In its effort to defuse such volatility, Banning turned to the Los Angeles school district conflict resolution team as well as the school’s peer-communicators group. Leuzinger uses a conflict-resolution program provided by the U.S. Justice Department. And Hawthorne High sought help from the Martin Luther King Center for Dispute Resolution in Los Angeles.

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Banning has a history of trouble between blacks and Latinos. Some say the most recent round of hostility harks back to football season: Some Latinos heard that black football players were “dissing” soccer players, most of whom are Latino. Others say they heard slurs while waiting for the bus.

Or it may be traced to the time some Latino kids brought water guns to school to squirt their friends but wet students of other races too. Even walking up and down the stairs is fraught with potential for hostility: Students sometimes bump into each other, and no one seems willing to back down first.

“We’re considering painting arrows on the stairwells so people can see how to stay to the right,” said Warren Furutani, the Los Angeles Unified board member who represents the Harbor district that includes Banning.

In the days after Latinos and blacks faced off in February, the school district sent school police to the campus. Counselors from Community Youth Gang Services also patrolled the grounds, and the district’s conflict-resolution team, already run ragged with problems at other schools, focused on Banning for a few days.

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“We suggested that they have more group meetings and bring the communities together,” said Buren Simons, district supervisor of Youth Relations/Crime Prevention. “It isn’t anything magical as much as it is trying to get people to come together.”

But administrators also are working on more permanent solutions.

Principal Bea Lamothe organized a group of student communicators last year to discuss problems and find ways to diffuse tension on campus. Banning also began rounding up loiterers, who in the past had contributed to fights in the hallways. And she welcomed parents to volunteer on campus.

The Los Angeles school district also plans an ethnic studies course in the fall--something students in ethnically diverse high schools around the South Bay say they want.

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“It won’t be a situation where they learn about Asians, then blacks, then Indians, then Anglos,” said Furutani, the board member who introduced the idea for the classes. “It will be concept driven. For example, students will learn about immigration: how it has taken all kinds of forms.”

“We all know that racial tension is nothing new at Banning,” Furutani said. “But the issue is what are we going to do about it?”

Racial tension is nothing new at Leuzinger High either. Three years ago, a fight between blacks and Latinos spilled on to Rosecrans Avenue. About the same time, teachers at Leuzinger, along with some at Hawthorne High, brought discrimination suits against the Centinela Valley Union High School District.

Principal Davis said she turned to the Justice Department’s program because students at Leuzinger did not seem to have fundamental communication skills.

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“I was truly concerned about the number of conflicts we have on campus, student to student and student to teacher,” Davis said. “I was particularly concerned that (many of) our youngsters, somewhere along the line . . . have missed being able to discuss anything, any kind of differences, without coming to verbal or physical confrontation.”

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The Justice Department’s community relations mediators first visited the school in March. Davis gathered 100 students considered leaders by their peers. The mediators asked the students to separate--Latinos with Latinos, Asians with Asians, whites with whites, blacks with blacks--and write down everything wrong at Leuzinger. The comments filled up six typewritten pages and ranged from bad vibes between the races to dirty bathrooms.

Deeper racial concerns would take time to address, Davis told the 100 students assembled in the auditorium, but the school would take immediate steps to implement some of their suggestions.

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Among the things they asked for was a pay phone on campus. Years ago, students vandalized the phone and stole the money, so the telephone company took it out. Now it will be replaced.

“But the deal is that you have to go back to your peers and tell them that they have to behave, all right?” Davis said.

Students then volunteered to work on committees to play music during lunch and organize volleyball teams and bathroom cleanup crews.

“We’re hoping that if they can work together in heterogeneous groups to identify some of their common concerns and suggest solutions, then they’ll realize that even though their cultural heritages may be different, they have many more common interests,” Davis said.

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At the top of the list of students’ requests regarding teachers was that they “stop using racial slurs.”

Davis acknowledged that some teachers used slurs and said she has disciplined teachers for inappropriate behavior toward students. She declined to elaborate.

“There are a lot of wonderful teachers here,” Davis said, “but it’s clear we still need to do things like workshops and maybe more sensitivity training.”

Math teacher Andrea Hetheru said she believes some teachers use slurs, but most do not.

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“I’m not in every classroom so I’m not seeing what’s going on. I believe, either it’s happening or they are perceiving that it’s happening,” Hetheru said. “But absolutely something has to be done.”

Many teachers, who were given copies of the students’ complaints, agree that relationships between the primarily minority students and the predominantly white teachers can be tense.

Racial tension is on the upswing everywhere, not just in Hawthorne, said mediators in the federal program, which is used in 50 schools in Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada. But it can be mitigated.

“Any school that is experiencing large demographic shifts must recognize that it will have to manage its racial diversity and take an active approach to doing that,” said Steven Thom of the Justice Department.

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Like Leuzinger, Hawthorne High is trying to teach students how to solve conflicts themselves.

The school is working with the Martin Luther King Center for Dispute Resolution, which sends mediators to the school to teach the students communication skills.

When arguments or fights break out, when racial slurs are used or when students return from suspension, they must go through mediation.

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“We had one case last week where a white kid came in and was really upset,” said Frank Dolce, the adviser for Hawthorne’s peer mediators. “He said he’d been in a really serious racial incident. (It) turns out that during a baseball game, he made a mistake at second base and a Latino kid called him a ‘white boy'--an ‘uncoordinated white boy.’

“Now, I’m white and that wouldn’t have bothered me, but this kid was really upset, so we called the Latino kid in. He said he was just frustrated when he said it, but that he didn’t mean to hurt the other kid’s feelings.”

Dolce is optimistic about race relations at Hawthorne High and in general. Sure, the students sometimes use racially charged language, he said, but usually they’re just frustrated about something else--they don’t really hate each other because of their different colors and cultures.

“Our campaign right now is to get the word ‘nigger’ off the campus,” even among African American students who sometimes use it among themselves, Dolce said.

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“You hear it the way you do somebody saying ‘Hey Joe,’ ” he added. “But (that creates) more confusion than anything else. Latino kids hear black kids use it and then wonder why they can’t. But then there are a lot of black kids who don’t use it at all and are really insulted by it.”

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While students learn how to intervene in tense situations between other students, they also learn how to stop misunderstanding and offending each other.

One recent morning the student mediators were seated in rows, listening to counselor Fran Cason talk about body language and nonverbal communication.

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Dressed in a flowing, flowery dress, purple socks and black running shoes, she conducted an experiment on judging people by how they look. She calls David to stand beside her.

The contrast between the two was marked. Cason is white. David is Latino. Her demeanor is very earnest; David is the picture of nonchalance. Her bright dress is the antithesis of his dark T-shirt and jeans.

Cason puts her arm around him and tells the class that contrary to what they may have believed, he is her son.

The class gives a startled laugh. David looks horrified.

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“Now I bet you’re looking at me differently. Maybe you’re wondering who the father is and wondering, ‘Who is Mrs. Cason?’ ”

David, in fact, is not Cason’s son, but the lesson hits home. Students agree that the overwhelming number of fights and arguments at the school are based mainly on assumptions kids make about other kids.

“You know what I think? I think everyone is afraid,” said Johnny Nguyen, 16. “They don’t want to talk to someone or get to know somebody because they’re afraid to do it.”

Many in the class nod their heads.

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“I know the kids say there is a lot of racial tension, but I think they think it’s worse than it really is,” Dolce said after class. “Almost all the time it’s a matter of miscommunication. Good communication could solve 90% of our problems.”


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