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Locke Students Seek Answers to Racial Tensions

February 17, 1996|PETER Y. HONG and PAUL H. JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It started with a stolen can of soda, but the few students who showed up Friday at Locke High School said that Thursday's brawl between nearly 400 youths might not have occurred had resentment between black and Latino students been confronted sooner.

"The fight wasn't about a 50-cent soda. It was about respect," said senior Ramon Garcia, 18, to about 200 cheering students at a rally in the school's gym.

Though most students applauded Garcia, all sat divided: The African Americans who have historically dominated the school's enrollment in one set of bleachers, the Latino students who soon will become Locke's majority in another.

Garcia and other students said that Latinos are bullied and their needs often are overlooked because there are few Latino teachers and administrators.

"Our friends are getting beaten up, their beepers, lunch money or even their lunches are getting stolen. We tell the deans [none of whom are Latinos] . . . but nothing happens," Garcia said.

Tension over a stolen soda can Tuesday had sparked a number of fights, culminating in Thursday's melee. At least 50 police officers were called in to restore order, and several arrests were made.

Angel Ochoa, 18, said Latino students had asked administrators Tuesday to hold a meeting for students to discuss racial strife, but none occurred.

Principal Annie Webb said a lunch hour session planned for Wednesday had to be canceled because the school had no funds to pay cafeteria staff overtime.

Webb was able to put together a smaller meeting during the last class period Wednesday, but said the students who later provoked the fight did not attend.

More than 1,000 of Locke's 1,700 students were absent Friday.

Friday's midday meeting, called by the Men of Locke Delegation--a 4-year-old student group with black and Latino members--was one of several held throughout the day as police, county gang intervention workers and school administrators swarmed the school.

Fights between Latinos and African Americans also broke out at several other schools. About 300 students fought Friday at Gardena High School, and more than 30 youths brawled Thursday at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, which has a history of racial squabbling.

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Correspondents Maki Becker and Tracy Johnson contributed to this story.

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