A fight between rival gang members erupted into a bottle-throwing, bat-slinging melee involving dozens of students at Inglewood High School Wednesday, injuring several youths and forcing school officials to dismiss classes in the early afternoon, authorities said.
Witnesses said the fight, which broke out about 11:30 a.m. as hundreds of students were gathered in an outdoor patio area to watch a dance performance, quickly escalated, sending scores of students fleeing for safety.
"It was like somebody dropped a match, that's how fast it was," said 16-year-old Loel Gatachew.
Several students were treated for cuts and bruises, but there were no serious injuries and no arrests, said Deputy Chief Jim Butz of the Inglewood Police Department.
Inglewood schools Supt. George J. McKenna III said he chose to suspend classes for the day about 1 p.m. "in the interest of safety."
Witnesses said the melee was triggered by a fight between two students, one Latino and the other African-American, and quickly turned into a brawl between black and Latino students.
There were conflicting reports about the number of students who took part in the fighting. School officials said there were no more than 50 participants, while students and other witnesses said there were at least twice that many.
School police and Inglewood police cordoned off the campus shortly after the melee erupted and stood guard for much of the afternoon as students, parents and school officials milled about in front of the school.
"It was hard to tell who was fighting and who wasn't, if you count all the people pushing and shoving to get out of the way, and the ones who were simply trying to defend themselves," said Jewerl Ross, 15, a sophomore student leader.
Several students said that the incident began after a black gang member "crossed out" the graffiti of a Latino gang. However, school officials insisted that the fight was not racially motivated.
"It was a fight between two individuals from opposing gangs that escalated into something else," said school Principal Kenneth Crowe. "It just happens that those gang affiliations happen to break down along racial lines."
Several students who said they saw what happened, however, said the outburst clearly had racial overtones.
"If you were Latino, blacks were hitting you and throwing things, and if you were black, Latinos were doing the same thing," said Francisco Garcia, 18. He said that he followed orders to return to class, but that when he walked in the door, several black students yelled, " 'There's a Mexican. Get him,' and I decided to get the heck out of there."
Victoria Lechuga, 40, said she came to the school to watch her daughter in the noon dance performance by a group of Latino students, "and I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
"What really scared me is that the school police, as hard as they tried, couldn't get it under control," she said. "They would stop the fighting in one spot and it would break out somewhere else."
Last month, a similar brawl involving dozens of black and Latino students erupted at nearby Leuzinger High School in the Centinela Valley Union High District after a fight between two girls escalated racial tensions on the Lawndale campus.
At Inglewood High, which is in the Inglewood Unified district, another outbreak of fighting occurred almost exactly a year ago between black and Latino students during a Cinco de Mayo celebration.
In that episode, black teen-agers walked out of an assembly in which the school principal was giving roses to the contestants for Cinco de Mayo queen. The black students said their Latino classmates had earlier slighted them during Black History Month.
Times staff writers George Hatch and Marc Lacey contributed to this story.