Two Vietnamese-American San Gabriel High School students face criminal charges for allegedly attacking a white student and beating another student coming to his rescue--the second apparent racially motivated attack in one week.
The victims suffered minor injuries and did not need to be hospitalized. But the incident underscores what some parents say is a recurring trend of racial tension on the ethnically diverse campus.
The students, Khuong Lay Tang, 18, of Rosemead and Hoang Duc Thai, 18, of San Gabriel are charged with one count each of battery on a school campus, said Robert Nishinaka, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney. They will be arraigned April 30 in Alhambra Municipal Court.
If convicted, Tang and Thai each face a maximum of one year in prison. They and two other Vietnamese-American students, both minors, were arrested March 26 after a confrontation in a hallway with the white students. The fight started when one of the minors pushed the student down, then called him "white boy," according to a police report.
Tang, Thai and a third companion allegedly joined in and started to hit the student, whose name was not released by police because he is a minor. Tang allegedly picked up a 20-gallon trash can and threw it at the student, striking him on the arm and head. An 18-year-old passerby tried to stop the fight because he thought "it was too many against one" but was also beaten, the report says.
All four Vietnamese-American students were suspended from school for five days.
Only one week before, eight Latino students were arrested at San Gabriel High after a parking lot brawl in which two Chinese-American students, brothers Andy and Tim Chen, were beaten. Principal Jack Mount is asking the Alhambra School Board, which oversees the high school, to expel five of the alleged attackers, several of whom belong to the varsity soccer team.
However, the district attorney's office has decided not to pursue criminal charges against the Latino students for lack of evidence. Parents of the five facing possible expulsion maintain that their sons are innocent and have asked the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to fight the charges.
Last week, the National Conference of Christians and Jews--a group that organizes multicultural school events--came to San Gabriel High and met with several dozen students from different racial groups. The students were able to air their concerns about the recent incidents, Mount said.
Still, the principal said that although the fracas had racial overtones--one of the Latino students allegedly used a four-letter vulgarity and referred to Andy Chen as a chino, which means Chinese in Spanish--it was an isolated incident that was due more to machismo than racism.
But a group of Chinese parents believe that the attack is part of a pattern of continuing problems between Asian and Latino students. After the fight, 225 Chinese students signed a petition claiming their non-Asian schoolmates often harass them on campus.
"To us, it's a daily happening," said Marina Tse, president of the Chinese American Parents and Teachers Assn. of Southern California. "We're very disappointed that with 225 signatures on a petition he still does not want to recognize the problem."
Other school officials say occasional clashes between ethnic groups are inevitable in an area that has undergone profound demographic changes. Even within racial groups, there is segregation due to language barriers and cultural differences, they say.
"We have Cambodians sitting next to Thais sitting next to Vietnamese sitting next to Taiwan Chinese," said Stephen Kornfeld, one of two deans of students at San Gabriel High. "There are feelings between newly arrived Central Americans and second- and third-generation Latinos."
On the 3,200-student San Gabriel campus, 42% of the students are Asian, up 11% from five years ago as immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Cambodia moved to the west San Gabriel Valley. During the same period, the Latino population decreased slightly from 48% to 44%. Whites make up 13%, and blacks less than 1%.
School officials say they have tried to deal with the ethnic tension by hiring special counselors, adding more bilingual courses and holding workshops to promote understanding between different races. And much has improved over the years, they say.
There have been stormier days in the school district. In 1985, a bloody confrontation between Vietnamese students at Alhambra High School and a group of Latino and white athletes resulted in arrests of four Vietnamese students and suspensions of students from both sides. One of the Latino athletes was stabbed, and several Vietnamese students--some members of a street gang--were injured.
Later that year, a fight between Asians and Latinos at Alhambra Public Library left one Chinese student gravely injured in a stabbing. But in both incidents, school officials downplayed any racial tension.
And in the past weeks, Alhambra School Board members, who oversee the district, are taking the same stand.
"They're high school kids," said Phyllis J. Rutherford, president of the five-member board. "Their hormones are rushing at full speed. A lot of times they bring in ethnic issues, but they do it to each other too. I disagree it's an everyday, horrible occurrence, that we have this great big vacuum of racial tension. We have clumps of arguments, clumps of fights."