Project Seeks Common Ground to End School’s Violence
John Salapa’s ninth-graders have learned a few things in the two months they have been at Grant High School.
They know Armenian American students hang out on the north side of the quad under the big trees, and the Latinos hang out on the south. They know Armenian Americans dress sort of conservative and Latinos dress sort of baggy--or at least that’s what people expect.
And they know what October means: fights between Armenian Americans and Latinos, who are primarily Mexican Americans at Grant.
“We had an assembly about it. It’s pretty cool. It’s like a natural disaster. Like half the school gets suspended,” one boy said cheerfully.
“It’s a tradition,” another said. “That’s why they call it the October Riots. They probably schedule it.”
These were not the comments of adolescent boys sounding off. They were opinions aired in a carefully moderated discussion led by a communications student from Cal State Northridge.
The discussion was part of “Communicating Common Ground,” a nationwide pilot initiative that seeks to eradicate hate speech and racially based campus violence at 30 inaugural sites nationwide, from Baltimore to Fargo, N.D. The program is co-sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Communication Assn., Campus Compact and the American Assn. for Higher Education.
Northridge professor Kathryn Sorrells and 35 intercultural communications students are visiting three freshman classes once a week for seven weeks this fall to talk about stereotypes, race, history, tolerance and what can be done to end ethnic violence on campus.
For as long as most people on campus can remember, tension between Armenian Americans and Latinos at Grant High has flared in late October. The 3,300-member student body representing 32 cultures is one of the most diverse in the San Fernando Valley. In the broadest of strokes, Grant’s makeup is 4% Asian, 6% African American, 2% Filipino, 51% Latino and 36% white, which includes Armenian Americans.
The group discussion involving seven freshman boys in a corner of Salapa’s class is part of the most intensive effort ever tried at the school to stave off a repeat fight and come up with a model to prevent ethnically motivated incidents at other U.S. schools.
The goal, Sorrells said, is to nab Grant students fresh--before they are indoctrinated by the campus culture--to try to bring up a new generation of students with new attitudes.
No one seems to know how or why the annual fights began. One district official speculated last year that campus tension between Latino and Armenian American students may have originated from disputes over earthquake relief efforts in the mid-1980s, after earthquakes in both Mexico and Armenia.
Students from each ethnic group claimed the other received more empathy and relief, said Fran Ramirez, a Los Angeles Unified School District administrator who was a Grant assistant principal at the time, in an interview last year with The Times.
That long-standing tension exploded into a lunchtime melee last October, involving more than 200 students after a Latina and an Armenian American girl fought over a boy. Onlookers shoved and screamed. Trash cans and soda bottles flew. And 15 police officers wearing helmets ordered students back to class. Although there were no serious injuries, a maintenance worker, some teachers and 10 students suffered scratches or bruises.
The anniversary of last year’s fight passed uneventfully Friday.
In 1994, two Armenian American boys were stabbed during a fight outside the school. Later that same day, a 16-year-old Latino was wounded in the calf during a drive-by shooting.
The pilot project is an effort to break the cycle.
Many students arrive at Grant with stereotypes and experiences already in place from middle school, Sorrells said.
In the first class, the moderators let Salapa’s students sit where they wished. The class broke up along ethnic lines: Latinos in some groups, Armenian Americans in others. Boys separate from girls.
Over time, the moderators work to change the pattern. The steps are small and undramatic.
At the beginning of each class, the CSUN students make the freshmen break the ice. They have to touch or talk or ask questions. They have to sit with students outside their cliques and talk about their differences--and similarities.
Led by Sorrells, the students talked about the Armenian genocide when 1.5 million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1923 by the Ottoman Empire. The students talked of the history of immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America. They talked about racial tension and what causes it. They talked about stereotypes, in-groups and out-groups.
Sorrells paced the room, tossing out questions.
What causes tensions? she asked.
“People find groups,” answered one boy. “They start talking to these people, but not those people.”
Another student suggested insecurity and jealousy were factors.
“It’s parents,” said an Armenian American girl. “They say, ‘Stay with your own group.”’
Students’ names have been withheld at the request of program organizers because of the sensitive nature of discussions.
Sorrells and her students are working intensively this semester with three ninth-grade geography classes. Next semester, the program will expand to more classes and add staff training. Sorrells said she hopes to come up with a communication model by next fall and try it at another campus by spring 2002.
Tension has existed at Grant for so long that only newcomers find the atmosphere strange, she said. “The tension here has been normalized.”
How does one create a school supportive of its culturally diverse society? Sorrells, the students, the faculty and the community are learning as they go along, she said.
This is not new ground for Grant.
After past incidents, administrators introduced conflict-resolution programs, cultural awareness classes, group mediation, peer counseling and teacher training. In January, students signed a peace treaty in which students, teachers, administrators and politicians promised to respect and promote understanding of different cultures and to end violence.
But the communications program is different, Sorrells said. Principal Joseph Walker, teachers and administrators who are involved agreed. This time, they say, they are demanding student buy-in. They are being proactive. And they are in for the long haul, working with students for months--possibly years--rather than a day.
Administrators hope this will help them tap into what is really going on.
“When you have 3,000 or so kids running around, issues come up and you are not always aware of them,” said Walker, standing in the middle of the quad--between the Latino and Armenian American territories--as hundreds of students swarmed past him en route to class. “We are not always conscious of the race issues, of the undercurrents. We are insulated from the adolescent world and the fantasizing that is going on.”
Assistant Principal Betty Riley, who is helping Sorrells coordinate the program, said her goal is to eliminate ethnic tension and transform Grant into the academic jewel of the Valley.
“When you say ‘Grant High School,’ people think about race riots,” Riley said. “When you hear ‘Grant High School’ in the future, I want people to think, ‘The students and faculty turned that school around. There are waiting lines to get into that school.’ ”
Nevertheless, skepticism lingers.
Salapa, whose freshman geography students are participating in the fall course, strongly supports the program. But he compared the challenge of easing tensions at the school to correcting the Leaning Tower of Pisa: So many plans to straighten it, but none have worked.
“When it really comes down to it, these kids wouldn’t be involved in anything,” he said of his freshmen. “To me, the next step is to have leadership. These kids are like ships without a rudder. The question is: Will someone stand up and say, ‘No,’ when the kids draw lines again?”
Teacher Tarik Smith, who works with the school’s peer mediators, said Grant’s problems begin off campus and merely reflect society.
“The bottom line is we all struggle with issues of race,” he said. “America is an experiment and the jury is still out on whether it’s going to work. It bothers me that people focus on schools, when this is a social problem that is going on everywhere. These kids are stopping problems more than they are setting them off.”
Although the fall program focuses primarily on freshmen, efforts are being made to reach everyone. One day last week, 117 students--one from every fourth-period class--met in the cafeteria to talk about racism. Unlike the ninth-graders, most of the students knew the rap. They were more sophisticated, more cynical.
They sat in groups of 12 and brainstormed. They talked about why racial tension exists, which groups experience it and what they and the faculty can do. With hip-hop playing in the background, they debated animatedly and scrawled their answers on giant pieces of paper to post on the walls.
“People are scared of being overpowered by different races,” wrote one group.
“We believe racial tension does exist at our school, but that is a part of human nature,” wrote another.
“People hate what they don’t understand,” wrote a third.
After class, peer mediator Camila Bert, an 11th-grader, expressed doubt about the program’s chances for success.
“They might go away and think they did a good job,” she said of Sorrells and the CSUN students. “But I don’t think it is going to change all that much. I’m not saying there is no way. Some of the students were talking. But a lot of them weren’t. A lot of them were telling me there was no hope.”
Back in Salapa’s classroom, Sorrells asked the ninth-graders what can be done to ease tension. A Latino boy said the campus police need to mellow out.
“If you are Latino and you walk over to the Armenians and the school police see you, they are all over you,” he said. “They should stop tagging you.”
Another student was more creative: “I have an idea. You can get the parents of Armenian and Latino parents--make it mandatory--the single ones. And make them date each other.”