Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Students feel unsafe after racial brawls in LA high school

Nicholas Shields:

Jefferson High School, with an enrollment of about 2,400 students, has seen attendance drop by more than half on some days. The day after the first brawl on April 14, 1,346 students were absent. Attendance began to creep up, until the second melee on April 18. The day after that, nearly 1,100 stayed home. By last Friday, the absentee number had dropped to 585. It was at 385 as of Tuesday — still higher than normal, but the best number since before the melees.

Some worry the absenteeism is making it hard to move forward with the curriculum. Bryant said when she returned to school last week to pick up missed assignments, many of her teachers said she hadn't missed much because so many students hadn't shown up. The students who did attend spent some classroom time discussing the violence, she said.

"Kids vote with their feet," said Philip Saldivar, the Los Angeles Unified School District's director for the District 5 area in South Los Angeles where Jefferson is located. "If they don't feel safe, they'll walk."

Saldivar and other officials said they had been feverishly working to rebuild community trust in Jefferson, and the problems with attendance had been an alarming signal that those efforts might not be working.

Already, the district has banned white T-shirts, which officials believe sometimes signal gang affiliation. Heavy belt buckles with logos are also prohibited, because of their links to gangs and because they could be used as weapons. Officials have also split lunch period into two sessions to avoid large groups of students congregating.

Saldivar has stood at the school's main entrance each school day in the last week, greeting parents and fielding their questions. He said many parents wondered whether it was safe to send their children back to Jefferson, and much of what the district is doing is designed to make them feel comfortable about letting their children return.

"If the climate of the school is safe, they will be here," Saldivar said. "We have to make sure parents, students and staff promote a safe environment."

On Tuesday, the school held a "day of dialogue" in which students were encouraged to discuss their thoughts on the melees and talk about ways to make the campus safer. Students said they spoke about the tense relationship between Latino and black students, and many said they believed the atmosphere was still charged enough for another disturbance to occur. Jefferson's population is about 92% Latino and about 7% black.

Angela Germany, 16, attended one of the discussions. She moved from Arizona to South Los Angeles to live with her aunt last year. But after the violence, she said she planned to return to Arizona in July.

News and Blogosphere:

Experts Weigh in on Racial Tensions

It's up to gangsters to break the cycle

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