Racial Tensions Overheat at L.A. High School

Thomas Jefferson High School in south Los Angeles recently has been the scene of three huge brawls, involving hundreds of black and Latino students and police in riot gear. Racial tensions plague the massive urban high school, which is also faces overcrowding and lack of resources.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

A Los Angeles high school is receiving a lot of attention for the wrong reasons. And this morning we'll be asking what we can learn about big urban schools across the country from the troubles at Thomas Jefferson High. In recent weeks it's been the scene of three huge brawls. Hundreds of students were involved and police in riot gear had to be called in. This week the principal announced his retirement after LA's newly elected mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, suggested the school is out of control. We'll start our coverage with NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

(Soundbite of muffled conversations)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

Donito Willey(ph) will be graduating from Jefferson High School in a few weeks. She's among the 6 percent of the students who are African-American; the rest, nearly 94, percent are Latino. With all the recent fights, Willey says she feels outnumbered.

So tell me what it's like to go to school here? You got police surrounding you.

DONITO WILLEY (Student): No, I don't care about the police, but I'm scared of these Mexicans. I tell you they've been coming with their knives and stuff. They've been trying to cut us up. I'm serious and I'm telling you that's how they get down. Everyone will come with--they come with weapons. It ain't us, I mean, with the weapons, but they've been trying to get us.

DEL BARCO: Jefferson High was once known for its famous African-American alumni: choreographer Alvin Ailey, actress Dorothy Dandridge, jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon. But lately, the school is famous for its huge brawls, beginning in April and continuing through last week. Willey says hundreds of students have gotten caught up in fights driven by racial anger.

WILLEY: If you would have been here, you would have been scared because they was fighting everywhere, all over. What's pumping the head up is the gangs around here, it's pumping the young one's head up to keep it going.

DEL BARCO: Principal Norm Morrow says he never expected the fights, the police squads, the tear gas, and now the constant security.

We're standing outside your school and there are police sirens going by, a police helicopter; there's at least four or five officers on motorcycles here.

(Soundbite of police cars; sirens)

DEL BARCO: You must feel like you're--somehow this school is under siege in some way.

Mr. NORM MORROW (Principal, Thomas Jefferson High School): No, I don't feel that way. I feel that what happened was unfortunate. We're all disappointed in that. What this community is facing is symptomatic of what's happening around Southern California. These are problems of tolerance for our young people.

DEL BARCO: After meeting with parents this week, Morrow talked about the other problems plaguing Jefferson, including overcrowding.

Mr. MORROW: The school is built for 1,500. I have 3,800 kids. I put 2,000 on a bus. When I came here I was told, `Well, it's not about education, it's about seats.' And I'm saying, `That is absurd.'

DEL BARCO: Morrow says he's been asking for help for years and feels LA's mayor-elect, Antonio Villaraigosa, and LA Unified School Superintendent Roy Romer are unfairly blaming him for the problems. Morrow is retiring this year as planned and says he's ending his 39-year career badly disappointed.

Mr. MORROW: These are systemic issues LAUSD needs to look at and not blame Norm Morrow, the principal. They need to say, `You know what? Those issues were addressed by the present principal and he's here to help the kids.'

DEL BARCO: Morrow says smaller class sizes are one solution for Jefferson. For now, the district is responding with additional campus police and a pledge to spend millions more on security. Mediators from the Department of Justice are at Jefferson to help black and Latino students resolve their differences, but that hasn't stopped the fights or the fear. Maria Soto worries about her son.

Ms. MARIA SOTO: (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: `We are all afraid,' says Soto. And she asks, `Who can concentrate on learning with all this fear?' Vanessa Vargus, a senior, says she can't.

VANESSA VARGUS: And we miss class. We are behind weeks of work and it's frustrating. I mean, the work--we're definitely not getting the best education in the world and then this happens.

DEL BARCO: Vargus says it didn't used to be this way. She's lived in the neighborhood all her life, but South Los Angeles has changed.

VARGUS: I guess maybe 10 years, maybe more than that, this community was predominantly African-American; there were a lot of, you know, Hispanics who were jumped by groups of African-Americans. And I hear the excuses, `Well, they did this to us 20 years ago; it's our turn just because now Latinos are the majority in the community.' And it's kind of their excuse. "They did this to us, we have to get payback," quote, unquote. And it just keeps going back and forth, back and forth, and that's why I don't think it's stopping.

DEL BARCO: Vargus insists that not everyone at Jefferson is racist, and, in spite of all the recent chaos, she claims it's still a school where kids can learn. Vargus is proof of that. She'll attend Harvard next fall. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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