Juan Estrada does not want to wait for interracial tensions in Thousand Oaks high schools to spin out of control. But he said he fears that students are moving in that direction with increasing intolerance and sporadic fights.
"People don't talk to each other, that's the problem," said Juan, 17, a senior at Westlake High School who moved to the United States from Mexico a year ago. "We have to talk so we can get together."
Juan and several dozen high school students from the Conejo Valley Unified School District participated in an all-day conference Thursday to brainstorm on ways to improve race relations on campus.
The freewheeling session involved sociological games and small group discussions to force interaction between student government leaders and students from English as a Second Language classes.
Thousand Oaks High School senior Renee Sando said she helped organize the conference because she wanted it to start a dialogue that students would take back to the classroom and school grounds.
Getting to know each other and learning to appreciate differences could reduce tensions on campus before they heat up to the point of violence, said Renee, the student government's commissioner of multicultural relations.
"I don't want Thousand Oaks High School to end up with metal detectors and a dress code," she said.
Throughout the day, students discussed racial stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination while participating in group exercises meant to demonstrate typical cultural clashes.
"I hope they will go back to their schools with a sense of mission," said Claudia Spelman, district coordinator of student services, who led the conference.
At one point, Spelman separated the students by drawing an imaginary line through the middle of the room. Half of the group was green-eyed and the other half was blue-eyed, Spelman declared.
The two groups had one minute to confer among themselves about why their group was superior. Finally, the blue-eyed people had to move to the green-eyed side and try to explain why they should be welcomed.
The students sparred loudly along eye-color lines, putting forth their best arguments as to why they were superior to the other group. Spelman said the exercise illustrated her point.
"It took less than five minutes for prejudice to develop," she told the students.
That type of group mentality, pitting people against each other, seemed familiar to Luis Rodriguez, a senior at Thousand Oaks High. "It's just like how life is," Luis said.
The conference was spurred in part by a student government survey conducted last year at Thousand Oaks High. The unscientific survey found that a majority of Latino students felt alienated and that most students were concerned about gang violence.
At Thursday's conference, students discussed ways to increase racial interaction and harmony, including creating a buddy system to pair students struggling with English with a native English speaker.
Students also favored adding more cultural education, increasing the awareness and sensitivity training for faculty, and adding a cultural page to school newspapers.
"Our last (newspaper issue) was all football and fires," said Eric Masaki, a senior at Newbury Park High, who plays on the football team and serves in student government. "It's not very broad."
Individually, the students said they needed to extend their circle of friends to include people of different ethnic origins. Student government also needs to become more inclusive, they agreed.
Student government is often perceived as an elite group of students, said student government adviser Dennis Dado, who attended the conference. On the other hand, new immigrants taking English as a Second Language courses are at the other extreme--often forgotten, he said.
"If these students can come together, from one extreme to the other, then certainly all the other differences that separate people from each other can be attacked," Dado said.