Racial Brawls at L.A.'s Jefferson High

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Campus brawls between blacks and Latinos plague Jefferson High School, a huge campus in south Los Angeles, and scores of students stay home because they say they're afraid to come to class.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

A few weeks ago, we reported on racial tensions between Latinos and African-Americans at Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles. Over the school year, police have been called in to break up several fights. Last week, the city's newly elected mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, told the Los Angeles school board that Jefferson High School is out of control.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): You didn't get a sense that anybody was in charge. It was very clear that kids were just walking through the hall, you know, not in class. I was particularly concerned in speaking with some of the African-American students who addressed the issue of a safe passage. They're asked to leave at 3:00 and nowhere to go.

GORDON: The racial makeup of South Los Angeles has shifted dramatically over the past decade or so. It's no longer predominantly African-American and neither is Jefferson High School. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.


Donita Wiley(ph) will be graduation 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, Wiley says she feels outnumbered.

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

DONITA WILEY (Student): No, I don't care about the police, but I'm scared of these Mexicans. Let me tell you, they be coming in with they knives and stuff. They be trying to cut us up. I'm serious. I'm telling you, that's how they get down. If they want to come with they--they come with weapons. It ain't us with the weapons, but they be 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. Wiley says hundreds of students have gotten caught up in fights driven by racial anger.

WILEY: If you would have been here, you would have been scared, because they were fighting everywhere, all over. What's pumping their head up is the gangs around here. They're pumping the young ones' heads up to keep it going.

DEL BARCO: Dwayne Clavon(ph), who's 17, describes what it's like at school these days.

DWAYNE CLAVON (Student): It's like a war actually in the school, like World War I is going on at Jefferson High School.

DEL BARCO: Clavon says everyone on the football team, other black students, Latinos and Chinese students, still get along great, but some of his black and Latino friends have been jumped because of the color of their skin and he says the campus has become polarized.

CLAVON: The quad area used to be just--everybody was mingled in everywhere, but now it's just--African-Americans are by the food lounge, and the Hispanics are, like, by the benches or by the trees or the lunch tables.

DEL BARCO: It's all segregated.

CLAVON: Yes, very segregated and also in the classrooms.

DEL BARCO: Principal Norm Morrow says he never expected the fights, the police squads, the Mace 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 siren)

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

Mr. NORM MORROW (Principal): No, I don't feel that way. I feel 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 young people, and we have to work at that. But, unfortunately, there are other issues out here in the community that these kids face that exacerbate the situation.

DEL BARCO: A lot of gangs around here.

Mr. MORROW: Oh, yes. There are 65 known gangs in the Newton Division, which is the LAPD division, and there's something like 12,000 or 13,000 known gang members.

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

Mr. MORROW: The school was 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 Schools 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 have pledged 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(ph) worries about her son.

Ms. MARIA SOTO (Mother): (Spanish spoken)

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

VANESSA VARGAS (Student): We've missed class. We are behind weeks of work, and it's frustrating. I mean, we're definitely not getting the best education in the world, and then this happens.

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

VARGAS: You know, this--maybe 10 years ago, maybe more, that this community was predominantly African-American. And there were a lot of, you know, Hispanics who were jumped by groups of African-Americans. And I hear, like, excuses, `Well, they did this to us 20 years to go. 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: Vargas 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. Vargas is proof of that. She'll attend Harvard next fall.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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