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Knife Attack Is Blamed on Racial Tensions : Crime: La Quinta High School officials say they have been acting to quell the increasing hostility between rival Asian and Latino groups.

October 05, 1995|MARTIN MILLER and TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WESTMINSTER — La Quinta High School officials Wednesday blamed acute racial tensions for causing a stabbing on campus that left a 17-year-old student hospitalized and four others under arrest.

Friction between two student groups erupted between classes Tuesday morning when an Asian student allegedly stabbed an 11th-grade Latino student in the back, La Quinta Principal Mitchell Thomas said.

"It was absolutely racially motivated," said Thomas, who warned most of the same students in his office less than two weeks ago to reduce ethnic hostilities. The two groups have repeatedly clashed, albeit less violently, since school began, he said.

The stabbing victim, whose identity was not released, was taken to UCI Medical Center in Orange, where he is being treated for a puncture wound to a lung. The youth was listed in stable condition Wednesday, according to Westminster police, who have beefed up patrols on the campus of 1,300 students.

On Tuesday, seven teens were taken into custody for questioning, four of whom were later booked at Orange County Juvenile Hall on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon.

Three of the students in custody are 14 years old, the other is 16, police said. They include both Asians and Latinos, but police would not give a breakdown.

The mood on campus was somber a day after the knifing, the first such incident since 1991, when a La Quinta student was stabbed in the buttock in a gang-related fight involving Vietnamese, Latino and white youths.

Like many campuses throughout the county, La Quinta's population is diverse, with roughly 60% Vietnamese American, 22% white and 15% Latino students. (Three percent of students are made up of other minorities.)

"There's a lot of people really depressed about this," said a 17-year-old La Quinta senior, whom school officials asked not be named for fear of retaliation. "You hear of this stuff happening off campus, but when it occurs on campus, you worry a little more."

Four police officers Wednesday patrolled the fenced-in campus on bicycles to prevent further violence. Another officer addressed faculty members at a meeting, advising them how to prevent, recognize and manage such incidents.

"This was definitely a very serious situation, one that we want to guard against from happening again," said Thomas, who will talk to parents about the attack during a regular breakfast meeting next week.

The two ethnic groups of students, composed almost entirely of freshmen, had been exchanging racial epithets and insults for weeks, said school officials.

Finally, about 10:15 a.m. on Tuesday, a Vietnamese student obtained a knife and, accompanied by others, attacked the Latino student, according to police and school officials.

"They started fighting with him, pushed him down and stabbed him in the back," said Sgt. Mike Mittelstaedt of the Westminster Police Department.

The school learned of the violence within 10 minutes, said Thomas, who noted dozens of students immediately offered to identify the attackers.

"We had students of every ethnic group step up to the plate," said Thomas, principal for five years. Conversely, added Thomas, those participating in the violence are "small in number, but strong in conviction."

Police recovered two knives, one with a three-inch blade and the other a 4 1/2-inch folding knife from the crime scene.

Officials do not believe the knifing was gang-related.

* ETHNIC AWARENESS

La Quinta is one of 10 local high schools in an inter-ethnic relations program. B7

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