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Students Feel the Strain of 2 Brawls, Crackdown

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Times Staff Writer

As Jermy Holand and Jose German walked out of Jefferson High School on Friday afternoon, they realized that the strength of their friendship would be tested in the days ahead.

Their campus has been shaken by disturbances over the past two weeks that officials blame on conflicts between black and Latino students.

German, a 16-year-old Latino, said his Latino friends have advised him to sever ties with his black friends -- namely Holand, 15. The two agreed it was risky to be seen walking together on campus, but they have vowed to remain friends.

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“I know a lot of Mexican friends, but I can’t kick it with them in here because everybody will be trippin’,” said Holand, whose lip remains bruised from a punch thrown during one of the brawls. “So I don’t talk to them.”

These days, it isn’t easy being a student at Jefferson High. In response to two large brawls involving hundreds of students, the Los Angeles Unified School District this week canceled lunch period. Instead, school ended early and students were given sack lunches to eat at home.

Lunch period will resume Monday, but on a two-track schedule designed to have fewer students roaming the campus at one time. Jefferson Principal Norm Morrow said that after the melees, he was troubled to see students of both races beginning to wear long white T-shirts that hover close to their knees.

“It’s a symbol of getting together as a group,” Morrow said. “We’re not going to have this here. This is a learning environment. [It’s] not to stake territory.”

Morrow has banned the T-shirts as well as heavy belt buckles, which he said could be used as weapons and sometimes serve as gang symbols.

The changes have met with mixed reactions. Some parents at a community forum Thursday night expressed hope that the moves would reduce violence. But other parents and some students believe the changes are unfair and won’t work. In response, some students -- Latino and black -- are wearing brown and black T-shirts.

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“They treat us like we’re in prison,” Holand said. “We could still fight if we want to.”

Three students were hurt last week in a brawl involving about 100 students near and around the cafeteria. On Monday, more than 100 black and Latino students got into another lunchtime fight that officials said had links to a gang dispute. Six students were detained and two of them were arrested. Another student suffered a broken hip.

Since then, there has been a heavy police presence on campus and off, and officials said the extra officers will remain for now.

Jefferson is in a working-class South Los Angeles neighborhood near Central Avenue and 41st Street. The school is 92% Latino and about 7% black.

Morrow believes that one reason for the violence has been gang conflicts spilling onto campus from the surrounding community. Race is at the core of the disputes, but Morrow said he is not sure why. He said one thing is clear: A small group is instigating the problems.

“I think 95% of my kids are outstanding kids, students and citizens that do the right thing,” Morrow said. “It’s a shame we have some of these issues.”

The fight on April 14 started when a Latino boy threw a milk carton at two black girls who were fighting, Morrow said. The fight on Monday occurred when groups of black and Latino students began gathering in the cafeteria area.

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Several students said that some of those involved in that fight had hidden tennis rackets and pieces of furniture to use as weapons. Officials say no weapons were found.

Henry Magdaleno, a 16-year-old junior, said there have been rumors about new fights occurring, but none has materialized. Magdaleno said he is carrying a video camera with him to school so that he can record the next fight, if there is one.

“I don’t think us tucking in our shirts is going to stop a fight or anything,” he said, adding that he believe tensions can cool with time.

Keiana Scott, 16, said she and other blacks on campus sometime feel as though they are outnumbered by Latino students, and that causes anxiety. Scott said she hasn’t attended school since the first melee and came to Jefferson on Friday only to pick up school assignments from her teachers.

“I might not be coming back,” she said.

Holand and German said they plan stick it out at Jefferson. But they are also being more careful. Though they still hang out together after school, they said they would be selective about being seen together on campus.

“I think I am going to lose a lot of friends,” German said. “My homies are telling me I have to pick sides now. They told me there is no middle.”

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