Problems between black and Hispanic students at Central High School in Capitol Heights, Maryland
Students at Central High School in Capitol Heights say classmates trigger a fire alarm nearly every day. Usually it's a false alarm, but one day last month someone set a fire in a boys' restroom.
Things went downhill from there.
Melissa Perez, 18, a sophomore, said she followed everyone to the evacuation area behind the school and got in the middle of a brawl involving dozens of students. In some corners, black students fought other black students, the school's principal said. Elsewhere, black and Hispanic students traded blows.
Perez, who is Hispanic, said a black girl blocked her way, cursed at her and smacked her across the face. Then four other girls piled on, scratching, kicking and punching, she said. Finally, staff members, security guards and Prince George's County police rushed into the fray and broke up several knots of students, according to the principal and students who said they witnessed the Nov. 10 incident.
No one was seriously injured. Perez had a grapefruit-size bruise on her left leg and a swollen lip, and she said she had scratches across her chest. Her brother Jose, 15, a freshman, who said he fought with two black students, had a small bump on his head.
Principal Fletcher James III said that other black and Hispanic students suffered minor bumps and bruises. Six students were suspended, he said.
More-lasting damage was done to relations between black and Hispanic students at Central, who said they had never experienced anything like it before.
"I told the students over the PA . . . I was thoroughly disgusted," James said. "We don't treat any human being the way that they were acting. We're not fighting each other. That's not what we're here for."
Calm has returned to the school, but the fight reflects cultural friction as majority-black Prince George's absorbs a rapidly expanding Hispanic population. Hispanic enrollment in the 135,000-student school system has nearly tripled, from 6,500 students a decade ago to 18,600 students now. In some schools, such as Northwestern High in Hyattsville, the black and Hispanic populations are about even.
"A lot of this is brought about simply by cultural differences and nuances that one is not aware of," said Howard W. Stone Jr., former vice chairman of the county school board.
"This is going to be an issue as Hispanics grow larger in the population. This is something we need to deal with."
At Central, near the D.C. border, the majority of the 1,000 students are black. There are 80 to 90 Hispanic students, up from 37 a decade ago.
For days after last month's brawl, some Hispanic parents, worried that the fighting had a racial component, kept their children out of school. Students who did go to school were escorted to their classes by teachers. James took pains to engage parents in a dialogue, although he angered some Spanish-speaking families when he sent a letter home in English only.
Black and Hispanic students interviewed for this article said they were not sure why the fight started. James said he believes that it was touched off by a rumor that a relative of a black student had been attacked by Hispanics several hours before the brawl erupted.
Some of the six students suspended for the fighting might face expulsion, James said, and authorities are looking into the conduct of two suspected of starting the bathroom fire, which caused minor damage.
Hispanic students and parents, including some who held a news conference to demand improved security, were hesitant to attribute the fighting to racism, saying it could have been provoked by a clash between gangs or a neighborhood squabble. But they said they worried about further violence because the conflict broke out, in part, along racial lines.
Six black parents interviewed for this story said they had heard about the fight from their children but had not received a letter about it from the principal. All six parents declined to give their names.
"This is a problem," said one of the parents, whose daughter is a sophomore at Central. "Someone needs to get on the ball and find out what's going on in our schools."
Clashes between blacks and Hispanics have been rare in Prince George's. Stone said Bladensburg High School experienced some such fights last year, but they have been curbed by an anti-violence initiative at the school. A bloody melee between Hispanic and black adults in Langley Park in August appeared to be caused by a misunderstanding and possibly mistaken identity.
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, said high school fights start for many reasons, not all of them clear.
"A lot of the conflicts, even those that are gang-related, start off of 'he said, she said' rumors," Trump said. "One kid who bumps into another at 7:30 in the morning can lead to a fight in the cafeteria, a stabbing or a shooting after dismissal if the issues are not addressed."
Conflicts have arisen in other U.S. communities where Latino populations are moving into predominantly black neighborhoods.
"It's exploded everywhere, from New York to Los Angeles, which is ground zero," said Nicolás C. Vaca, author of "The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America."
"It doesn't surprise me that it's manifested itself in the high schools," Vaca said, "because that's what happened in California."
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