Parents of some African American students at El Rancho Middle School have accused school officials of ignoring or mishandling a series of racial incidents involving their children and a group of white students.
"There is definitely a problem, and they don't have a way of dealing with it," parent Florence Arboue said. "A lot of these kids are going to have emotional baggage to deal with for the rest of their lives. This is what we are trying to prevent."
The incidents mainly have involved name-calling among the students and have not led to any physical confrontations. The problems have led to the suspension of two students--one for calling a classmate by a racial slur and another for passing a note threatening a counselor. A third student was transferred to another school in the Orange Unified School District after he called a counselor a name at a dance, school officials said.
The parents said they would like counseling for their children and want the school's staff to be taught how to deal with racial tension in a way that is fair and educational for students.
They may get their way. Principal Roger Duthoy said this week, that although the issue is "not a campuswide problem," he has asked the Orange County Human Relations Commission to step in to help ease the troubles, which he said involves about 15 students.
Rusty Kennedy, the commission's executive director, said the commission has done work at schools throughout the county for 10 years. The commission usually works with high schools but recently has expanded its efforts to include middle schools.
"I've never had to deal with this before," said Duthoy, who has been principal at the school for four years. "I'm not going to put up with it. It's not good for anyone. I don't want it to spread."
Kennedy said his organization will begin working with students and faculty at the school in January.
"What was a predominantly white community has undergone some changes," Kennedy said. "We need to improve the skills of students and staff members in dealing with it so it doesn't rip the school apart."
Of 856 students at the school, 14 are African Americans. There are 562 whites, 177 students of Asian descent, 97 Latinos, four Native Americans and two Pacific Islanders.
Duthoy said that in recent years, the school has experienced a tremendous increase in Asian students while the African American student population has remained about the same.
Kennedy said that the demographic changes at the school are reflective of the county, which in recent years has gone from being a mostly white community to a multiethnic area with 2.5 million people.
Parents of several students and two former students, all African Americans, said their children have suffered emotionally and academically because of the racial problems at the school.
"I send my child to school every day to learn," parent Michelle Effendi said. "These are good kids that we are speaking of. My daughter has never had problems academically and now I find out she's flunking math. She's experiencing racism, and I can't sweep it under the rug."
Effendi and other parents are especially critical of the principal and faculty members for how they say things have been handled.
"They are not sensitive to this at all," said Bill Robinson, whose son was suspended earlier this year and transferred to another school after a confrontation at a school dance during which the youngster was accused of calling a school counselor names.
"This is making these kids have low self-esteem and making them angry," Robinson added. "There will be others kids in the future who are going through the system and they are going to be faced with this if the school district doesn't take this seriously."
Arboue and other parents said some African American students were told by school staff not to walk together in a group on campus because they are "intimidating" other students.
"We're not supposed to walk together because we've been told that we're a gang," said one 12-year-old student. "The white kids can pick and choose their peers and when they walk together it's OK. When we walk together, we're a gang. I think it's really, really unfair."
Duthoy said there has been no ban on the students hanging around together but said, "I told them that they cannot walk around as a large group intimidating other students. I don't think it's fair for any students to be intimidating."
The principal said that on a recent day a group of African American students had encircled a lunch table of other students and were told to leave the area. He said that on another occasion, at a school dance, some of the students were told not to walk around as a group when it looked as if there was going to be a confrontation.
"This is a small picture of what is going on and doesn't really represent the environment of this campus," Duthoy said. "I hope people don't think there is a big racial problem on this campus. It's a name-calling problem and severely damaging to the people who are involved."
Kennedy said his organization will be working with the administration to adopt a policy detailing how such situations should be handled. He said the policy would then need to be communicated to all students and faculty members.
"A big part of it is working with faculty and talking to them," Kennedy said. "There are things they need to do and address, otherwise they set a tone that contributes to the problem."
Students will be invited to a symposium at UC Irvine next month and will participate in subsequent off-campus activities that will include discussion groups.
"We try to structure positive experiences for diverse kids," Kennedy said. "They learn lessons about labeling and stereotypes and we ask them to share significant incidents of prejudice that they have experienced."
Last week, the commission held its annual "Walk in My Shoes" conference at Cal State Fullerton, where about 500 students discussed controversial issues that are dividing students of different races and ethnic groups.