The hills surrounding Valencia High School are alive with the sounds of buzz saws, jackhammers and bulldozers.
Across the street, a new red-tile-roof subdivision is rising along the banks of San Francisquito Creek, complete with meandering walkways, landscaped greenbelts and a “village recreation center.” Workers are also putting the finishing touches on upscale hilltop homes that offer commanding views of the Santa Clarita Valley.
Families have long flocked to this master-planned community 35 miles north of downtown Los Angeles because of the pristine parks and high-performing schools in the fervent belief it is a good place to raise children.
But some families who moved to the Santa Clarita Valley to escape the noise, crime and decay of the city are finding that life is not so comfortable in the manicured suburbs.
The valley has been roiled over the last few months by claims from at least half a dozen African American families that their children have been targets of intolerant, even racist, behavior from their white peers. They say the white teens have continually bullied, harassed and attacked their children at school and off campus for no apparent reason, other than the color of their skin.
The attacks, they said, occurred when youths were walking home from school, going to the park or visiting friends. The incidents have shaken the community because the alleged assailants are not skin-head outsiders but other teenagers who live among them in the pricey subdivisions.
“I need to be making college plans for my kids, and instead I’m fighting this mess,” said Valencia resident Robin Williams-Nohara, who says her three sons have been harassed and beaten by white teenagers. “I can’t believe this is happening in L.A. County in 2005. No way.”
Williams-Nohara is African American and works as an infant-care specialist in West Los Angeles. Her Japanese American husband, Seiji Nohara, is a customer service representative for United Airlines. They moved to Valencia from Monterey Park four years ago, hoping the good schools and suburban environment would help their children excel and go on to college.
Valencia High officials and city leaders acknowledge that racial problems have occurred on campus, attributing them to young people having a hard time adjusting to the area’s growing diversity.
Santa Clarita, a fast-growing city set amid the mountains north of the San Fernando Valley, remains a predominantly white middle-class to upper-middle-class area. But it is not as white as it used to be.
The number of black residents in Santa Clarita, which includes the communities of Valencia, Saugus, Canyon Country and Newhall, has stayed roughly the same over the last decade, at about 2% of the population. But the white population has declined from 73% to 69%. Latinos in the city of 151,000 rose from 15% to 21% in the same period, according to U.S. Census figures.
The median family income in Santa Clarita is $73,588, compared with $46,452 in all of Los Angeles County.
“This didn’t start overnight,” said Gloria Mercado-Fortine, a local school board member who grew up in the area. “The demographics are changing and new ethnic groups are coming in. There have always been Latinos and African Americans in the Santa Clarita Valley, but it’s expanding. I don’t think we, as a community, have paid enough attention to this and made it a priority. I believe we could have done a better job in planning for these changes.”
Valencia High expelled two students last semester and suspended five others for their involvement in racial incidents, said Principal Paul Priesz.
The school has started a tolerance education program sponsored by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations and established a forum for students to talk about racial conflicts and devise solutions.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, meanwhile, is dispatching undercover gang unit deputies to cruise Valencia High’s parking lots in search of cars with white power or Nazi insignias.
“The number of incidents has escalated a little bit recently, but it’s something we’ve dealt with,” Priesz said. “When you talk with kids and their parents, you learn a lot of these things are happening in the community -- at stores, fast-food restaurants, on the streets -- and then they spill over onto the campus.”
Parents say they are choosing to speak up now before one of their children is severely beaten or even shot. About a dozen African American families and their supporters in the Santa Clarita Valley have formed a group called People Supporting Diversity to combat racist activity. The parents have met with federal, state and local representatives over the last month to help officials investigate the incidents and find the attackers.
The most recent incident occurred Feb. 5, when Williams-Nohara’s 16-year-old son, Akira, was chased at a neighborhood park by a group of white teenage boys who threatened to kill him, Williams-Nohara said.
Akira and his brother Shin, 17, were on their way to drop off a friend when Akira asked to stop at the park to use the bathroom.
Before Akira reached the restroom, he saw three cars pull up behind his brother’s car. The youths jumped out, carrying metal poles and yelling, “I’m going to kill you niggers,” Williams-Nohara said.
They began chasing Akira, who ran into the bushes, she said.
In a panic, Shin called the home where his mother was attending a parents’ meeting with representatives from the county Human Relations Commission and the U.S. Justice Department about several previous fights.
Parents and officials raced to the park, where they met sheriff’s deputies. The assailants weren’t caught, and the matter is under investigation, said Sheriff’s Capt. Patti Minutello of the Santa Clarita Valley station.
Williams-Nohara vented her frustrations in a letter to Cmdr. Sam Jones, who oversees the region for the Sheriff’s Department.
” ... We are tax-paying, homeowning, law-abiding citizens who moved here four years ago for the quality of life we thought the Santa Clarita Valley could offer us,” Williams-Nohara wrote. “No one could ever convince me that this valley would be anything but a wonderful place to raise our children. This has turned into a nightmare. Please help us.”
Parents say similar incidents have occurred during the last two years, including Memorial Day 2003, when two of Williams-Nohara’s sons were attacked as they walked to a store near their house to buy ice cream. Shin and Akira were confronted by a group of white teenage boys in white pickup trucks. Akira and Shin were hit with a chain, and Shin was struck in the head with brass knuckles, which left a long, deep gash on the left side of his scalp that required nine staples. No one has been arrested in the incident.
Patricia Pope-Jordan said her son, Devin, also has been the victim of racist acts, including an incident that occurred last fall while he was waiting at a bus stop for a ride to school. Two white teens approached and began pushing him, she said. They tore his shirt and backpack and stole his hat and CD player, Pope-Jordan said.
A few weeks later, Devin was bullied at a friend’s Sweet 16 party in nearby Castaic. A group of white youths who appeared to be in their late teens pulled up to the house in about 20 trucks and cars, jumped over the back fence and crashed the party, said Tammy Roberts, who is white and the mother of the girl who was host of the party.
Many of the party-crashers appeared drunk, Roberts said, and they began intimidating the partygoers, including Devin, the only African American in attendance.
“I’ve never seen such a disrespectful, ugly group of kids in my life,” Roberts said. “They had no regard for parents or property. The DJ just packed up and left. They ruined my daughter’s party.”
Pope-Jordan said one of the male party-crashers knocked a soda from Devin’s hand, pushed his hat off and threatened to kill him.
Roberts said she called the Sheriff’s Department, but by the time deputies arrived, the unruly teenagers had left, only to return after the police cruisers had rolled away.
“If I had known there was this kind of thing going on here, I never would have moved here,” said Roberts, who moved to Castaic five years ago from Los Angeles. “This is what I was trying to get away from. It’s not what I wanted for my children.”
Parents say they’re concerned that their children are being goaded into fighting back, which puts them at risk of getting arrested themselves. Caryn Brandon said that’s what happened to her son, Brandon Carrera, 16, who heard that a white teenager had called another white youth the N-word last fall at Valencia High.
“He hit the kid,” Brandon said of her son. “He did it and he’s guilty of that.”
He was arrested on felony assault and battery charges and spent five days in juvenile hall before being placed under house arrest, his mother said.
The other boy, whose forehead was cut in the altercation, was punished for using hate words on campus, Priesz said.
Mary Louise Longoria, senior intergroup relations coordinator for the county Commission on Human Relations, said the incidents show that even places such as Santa Clarita -- which often ranks as one of the nation’s safest cities in FBI crime reports -- still can harbor hate.
“It’s almost like an invisible disease that goes through a community,” Longoria said. “I’ve heard from African American parents, Latino parents ... even incidents against Jewish people.
“The good thing is, because they are educated parents who moved up there for their children, they’re organizing and going to the top. That’s the first step.”