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Parents Worry, and Many Students Stay Away at Jefferson

Times Staff Writers

One day after police were called to break up the third in a series of racially charged brawls at Jefferson High School, worried parents stood vigil outside the South Los Angeles campus Friday and demanded that administrators clamp down on the unrest.

As several dozen police officers and members of the Nation of Islam patrolled the streets surrounding the high school and Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa met with students and administrators to discuss the fracas, scores of parents descended on the campus and expressed fears that administrators were losing control of the situation.

“I’m afraid for my son’s safety,” Leticia Espinoza said. “He wants to come, but I don’t want him to come.”

More than a third of Jefferson’s students failed to show up for class Friday after police in riot gear broke up a series of fistfights and shoving matches Thursday.

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Black students in particular appeared to have stayed away. Parents and students said they were as worried about violence occurring on the way to school as they were that it would break out on campus. Senior Emmanuel Wilson, 18, said he saw only two fellow black students on campus.

Latinos constitute about 92% of Jefferson’s 2,405 students, while blacks make up 7%.

School administrators insisted that students were safe, and that keeping them home from school was a mistake. Among other precautions, administrators had beefed up security patrols at the school.

“This is a very complex problem that is not fixed overnight,” said Rowena Lagrosa, superintendent of the school sub-district that includes Jefferson. “But I do know that students who come here can feel safe.”

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Los Angeles school police arrested three students and cited 20 others in Thursday’s incident; dozens of students and six police officers were treated for minor injuries. Twenty-two students -- both Latino and African American -- have been barred from campus as a result of Thursday’s fight, which was the third such incident in six weeks. Larger, bloodier brawls occurred April 14 and 18.

Though Principal Norm Morrow and other administrators insisted that the fights were not motivated by race, Villaraigosa said that after talking with students, he believed race played a role.

“I’ve heard from the young people that, yes, there were racial implications to what happened yesterday,” Villaraigosa said. The incident was fueled by a small group, some of whom were gang members, he said.

“We’re working with the teachers currently to address the situation,” Villaraigosa said. “We wanted to hear from the young people directly what’s going on so that we didn’t have a ‘filter,’ if you will.”

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The pattern of events Friday was similar to that of the previous two brawls. In each, school attendance plummeted the following day and parents appealed to administrators for action. Eventually, students returned.

On Friday, parents congregated in small groups outside the yellow, two-story school, talking worriedly among themselves and with any campus employee who happened by.

“It’s dangerous,” parent Angelica Romero said.

Veronica D. Walton said her son wasn’t yet in high school, but she was worried that too little was being done on all campuses. She said her son was knocked unconscious March 16 at Bethune Middle School, also in South Los Angeles, in an incident she believes was racial.

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“Violence is violence. If it happens at one school, it’ll happen at the next,” she said.

School officials declared a half-day of classes Friday -- dismissing students before lunch, when violence was most likely to occur. Much of the time was devoted to a campuswide “Day of Dialogue,” during which teachers and officials from county government and the U.S. Department of Justice discussed the fights.

Students leaving campus said the exercise failed to dispel their concerns.

“We just talked and laughed,” said freshman Jeovanni Serrano. “The teacher said it’s wrong to fight, and we shouldn’t be doing this, and it makes our school look bad.”

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Another student, freshman Terrence Chambers, said he was still worried about his safety. “I’m upset because I gotta really watch my back to see if someone’s gonna jump me or say something to me,” he said.

College-bound senior Richard Long, 18, said that although he’s not afraid to attend classes, he doesn’t think there’s any guarantee the campus is safe.

“There’s no obvious solution to the violence,” he said. “But I need to get an education.”

The campus remained calm Friday, patrolled by more than a dozen uniformed police officers.

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Administrators said they have instituted a number of safety measures, and said some students involved in Thursday’s fight would be reassigned to continuation schools while others might be expelled.

Dan Isaacs, chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Unified School District, speaking on behalf of Supt. Roy Romer, who was out of town, said heightened safety measures included the permanent assignment of five police officers to the campus through the start of the next school year, “safe passage” routes to and from school that are supervised by parents and police, and on-site conflict resolution teams supplied by city and federal agencies.

But a solution would take more, he said: “We’ve got to bring this discussion from the school into the community.”

The Nation of Islam has also beefed up the patrols it began after the first brawls.

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“We now patrol [near] at least 10 high schools because we don’t want to see black and brown families at war,” said Tony Muhammad, a regional leader of the Nation of Islam.

“What you see is the clashing of cultures, and no one wants to bend.... Sometimes even the body language can be misinterpreted.”

The school term ends June 28 for Jefferson, which is a year-round campus.


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