Black vs. Brown at LA School

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Destiny Johnson was just finishing lunch when she noticed the fistfight breaking out in a corner of Locke High School's grassy quad area. It's not uncommon to see brawls at the South Los Angeles school — long known as one of L.A.'s most troubled — but this one was different, quickly escalating into a roving melee involving, by some accounts, 600 students, including bystanders. Fleeing toward her 5th-period English class, "I saw this stampede of kids rushing at me," says Johnson, 18. "It was the scariest thing I had seen here."

In this neighborhood of modest one-story homes, storefront churches and taco stands, residents are understandably sensitive to the frightening potential of unbounded violence: Locke stands just a few blocks from the epicenter of 1965's Watts riots. So when the May 9 incident turned into what principal Travis Kiel calls "a full-fledged black and brown thing" — a near-riot pitting African-American against Latino students — he called for help. Within minutes, more than 100 police officers, many in riot gear, stormed the campus, wielding batons, herding blacks and Latinos into separate gymnasiums, and arresting four students. (There were no major injuries.)

Now, in a week that was supposed to be focused on standardized testing and Friday night's prom, Kiel is still working to restore calm, with the help of 20 police officers and a team of school-district conflict-resolution workers, who interviewed 300 students to soothe nerves and try to determine the cause of the melee. The initial assessment: About half the students told investigators the incident was racially motivated, perhaps stemming from a territorial dispute between rival gangs of "taggers," whose grafitti has increasingly shown up on the campus in recent months. The rest blame it on something more benign: ennui. "One young man said, 'This is not a racial issue. This is just people being dumb,'" says Holly Priebe-Diaz, who leads the district's intervention team.

Race is an unavoidable factor on most of L.A.'s school campuses, where such outbreaks have occurred occasionally in recent years — though rarely involving such numbers. There is ongoing debate about how much tension between the races plays a role. Activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable called for black and Latino students join in a "Unity Day" against violence, saying L.A. school officials had failed for too long to act to quell tensions between the groups. "That failure is a prescription for continuing disaster," Hutchinson said.

At Locke, whose population of 2,600 is roughly 65% Latino and 35% black, Johnson admits that her classmates tend to segregate at lunch and even in the classroom, where blacks and Latinos often sit on opposite sides of the room. "But those are cliques," she says. "It's not like we're mean to each other." Senior Oscar Hernandez, 18, says the May 9 melee started out as a simple schoolyard conflict. "It's not about racism — it's just individuals having problems with each other," he says. "But when you see your friend being beat up, you're going to reach out to help him."

The episode could just as well have been rooted in another kind of unease. Locke, long an academic underperformer, will come under new management in just a few weeks. After a protracted battle, L.A. Unified School District's board voted in the fall to turn it over to Green Dot Public Schools, a private non-profit that plans to turn the campus into a cluster of charter schools. Come July 1, many of Locke's teachers will be out of work. And students, worried about new policies like required uniforms, wonder whether there will still be a football team or a school band.

"There's tension between staff, students and the community around that whole issue," admits Kiel, whom the district brought in from retirement last May to oversee the transition. "There's a kind of free-floating anxiety." For the moment, Priebe-Diaz, the intervention leader, is working to encourage teachers to put those differences behind them and focus on healing. "Just because you change the paint on the walls doesn't take away the historical problems that have been happening here," says Priebe-Diaz, who wants to give the new management strategies to encourage interracial dialogue. "Will it be easy? No. Will it happen overnight? No," she says. "But there is always hope."