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Banners Seek to Prevent Rips in the Social Fabric

February 11, 2000|JOHNATHON E. BRIGGS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Banners with words and images confronting stereotypes and promoting diversity and respect were unveiled Thursday morning outside Grant High School, where ethnic tensions erupted in violence last year and students signed a "peace treaty" in January.

Created by student artists in a city Human Relations Commission program called Shoulder-to-Shoulder, 420 banners will be installed across Los Angeles on street light poles this week to help promote ethnic and racial understanding, said City Councilman Mike Feuer.

"Tolerance is far below our highest aspiration," said Feuer, who helped start Shoulder-to-Shoulder two years ago to foster multicultural harmony. "We have to truly understand each other."

The banners have 16 designs, five of which are displayed on Oxnard Street in front of Van Nuys' Grant High, one of the most diverse campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District, with more than 25 ethnicities.

One banner says, "See Beyond Stereotypes," and depicts an African American teenage boy and a white girl glancing at each other. "She thought I was a frightening revolutionary," the boy's caption reads. "He thought I was a spoiled white girl," hers reads.

Another shows a girl saying, "I'm Guatemalan," and a boy saying, "I'm Jewish." Together they declare, "We're different. It's cool."

The 3,400-student campus was chosen to inaugurate the project, Feuer said, because of long-standing tensions there between Armenians and Latinos that exploded in October into a lunchtime melee reportedly involving 200 students.

In an attempt to ease tensions, students signed a treaty last month pledging to talk out their differences and resolve conflicts through the school's peer mediation program.

Senior Tina Ellis said tensions have since calmed, but she doubts that the banners will be effective.

"They won't help," said the 17-year-old African American. "The students have to help themselves."

Others disagreed.

"Maybe [the banners] will knock some sense into people," Jason Villarama said. "They're a new start for Grant."

The next step is to promote dialogue around them, added the senior, who has been involved in peer mediation for three years.

Grant students said that during breaks Armenians still claim a tree-lined spot at the front of the school, while Latinos hang out in the back and on the sides of that area.

"Everybody here is segregated in their own little way," he said.

Indeed, on Jan. 14, a day after the treaty was signed, anti-Armenian graffiti denouncing the document was scrawled on a school building, said Principal Joe Walker. No one has been arrested in the incident and police are investigating it as a hate crime, said LAPD Det. Joseph Aparicio.

Walker said Grant will still receive an award Tuesday from the school board for negotiating the treaty and working to combat ethnic divisions.

"Everybody's heart is not in [the treaty]," he said. "But we have to continually work to get people to respect each other."

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