Flanked by school administrators and sheriff's cruisers, about 40 Latino students and adult activists peacefully protested Monday against what they called a pattern of racist behavior by Camarillo High School personnel.
"They picture the Mexicans as the bad people," said student Robert Gonzales, 17. "The cops. At school. It's the same thing."
Gonzales said Latinos stand out in the primarily white student body and are picked on by teachers and school staff, often because of the way they dress or wear their hair.
Principal Donald Bathgate denied that officials have exhibited racist behavior at the school, which is about 17% Latino.
"I don't think our school system is a racist system," Bathgate said. "Our concern is to keep kids in school so they get a good education. But I also have an obligation to keep a safe campus."
Ramona Ayala, an organizer of the Latino parent group Padres Unidos del Condado de Ventura, helped lead the protest. Ayala recently filed seven complaints against the County Sheriff's Department, alleging harassment against Latino youths in Camarillo.
Mary Campos-Herrera, a youth outreach worker for El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, an Oxnard-based Latino advocacy group, said some Camarillo High students said they have been mistreated. "They say that the teachers are not sensitive to their needs; they make derogatory (remarks) to them, say they don't belong," she said.
Bathgate acknowledged that some students are unfairly being labeled as gang members--not by school officials, but by some white parents and students.
"If a student wears a black jacket or black clothing, they are assumed to be a gang member and that's not true," Bathgate said. However, he said, school officials "don't go out to pick on any particular ethnic group."
According to school records, 71 students were suspended in January, February and March. Thirty-two of them are Latino and were suspended primarily for fighting.