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Ethnic Tension Blamed for Grant High Melee

School: Officials say they have been trying for years to ease conflict between Armenian and Latino students.

October 23, 1999|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A lunchtime brawl involving more than 200 Grant High School students was triggered by a fight between a Latina and an Armenian girl in a dispute over a boy, school officials said Friday.

Long-standing ethnic tensions between Latino and Armenian students fueled Thursday's disturbance, which began around 12:45 p.m. The two girls knocked each other down, rolled around the lunch area and pulled hair. Onlookers started shoving, screaming and throwing soda bottles and trash cans until 15 police officers wearing helmets ordered students back to class.

There were no serious injuries, but a maintenance worker, some teachers and 10 students suffered scratches or bruises.

Police arrested three students on suspicion of disturbing the peace and fighting and two for investigation of assault with a deadly weapon. Officials said one girl was arrested for allegedly concealing a knife in her bra. About 40 students were detained after the fight.

"I want to assure you that our campus is safe," Grant Principal Joe Walker said during a Friday morning public address announcement. "We have the necessary personnel to keep the peace."

More than a third of the school's 3,400 students were absent Friday. Los Angeles and school district police patrolled the campus on foot, on bicycles and in cars.

Outside the principal's office, an Armenian boy waited to go home. "I'm scared," he said.

Grant students are subjected to random metal detector checks, and school police and security aides are assigned to the campus daily. Los Angeles Unified School District spokeswoman Socorro Serrano said that in the coming days security will be evaluated and possibly increased. Extra police will remain on campus through next week.

Anna Gonzalez of Van Nuys kept her freshman daughter home while she went to the school to see if it was safe. Since she started school earlier this year, the daughter has been pushed and bullied by other girls, Gonzalez said.

"She's afraid to come to school," Gonzalez said, motioning toward the police. "It's like a jail today. It looks safe now, but what about later?"

Grant students said Armenians claim a tree-lined spot in the front of the school, while the Latinos hang out in the back. Not observing those boundaries has led to trouble, students said.

In 1994, two Armenian boys were stabbed during a fight just outside of the school and, on that same day, a 16-year-old Latino boy was later wounded in the calf during a drive-by shooting.

School officials said they have tried to ease tensions between Armenian and Latino students with conflict resolution programs, cultural awareness classes, group mediation, peer counseling and teacher training.

On Monday, the district's Office of Intergroup Relations, which deals with conflict resolution programs, will begin designing a plan for the school to train more students in how to detect and defuse tensions.

"Obviously, we need to do more," Serrano said. "Admittedly so, we need to have more ongoing conflict resolution programs" districtwide and particularly at Grant. She said the district is in the process of increasing such programs.

Students met Friday with district employees, professional mediators, Armenian and Latino business leaders and politicians.

The teenagers suggested that mediators work with students in neighboring middle schools, where much of the ethnic tension begins. The students also asked to expand the school's current conflict resolution programs and offer mediation to the two girls who instigated Thursday's melee.

"They want to work things out," said state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), who met with about 50 students. "I have a lot of hope in these kids."

One school district official speculated that campus tension between Latino and Armenian students may have originated, in part, from disputes over earthquake relief drives after quakes in Mexico and Armenia during the 1980s.

During that time, students from each ethnic group claimed the other group received more sensitivity and relief support, said Fran Ramirez, an L.A Unified administrator who was a Grant assistant principal at the time.

"It led to an argument in a classroom," she said.

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