VALLEY GLEN — 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 a "peace treaty" was signed by students in January.
Created by student artists in a city program called Shoulder-to-Shoulder--sponsored by the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission--420 banners will be installed citywide on light poles this week to foster ethnic and racial understanding, City Councilman Mike Feuer said.
"Tolerance is far below our highest aspiration," said Feuer, who two years ago helped start the Shoulder-to-Shoulder program. "We have to truly understand each other."
The banners sport 16 different designs, five of which line a stretch of Oxnard Street in front of Grant High, one of the most diverse campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District with more than 25 different ethnicities represented.
One banner, which says, "See Beyond Stereotypes," 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," reads hers.
Another--which says, "We're different. It's cool."--shows a Guatemalan girl and a Jewish boy standing next to each other.
The 3,400-student Valley Glen campus was chosen as the inaugural site for the citywide display, Feuer said, due to long-standing tensions on campus between Armenian and Latino students. In October, those tensions exploded into a lunchtime melee that reportedly involved 200 students.
In an attempt to ease the animosity, last month students signed a peace treaty pledging to talk out their differences and resolve conflicts through the school's Peer Mediation Program.
Senior Tina Ellis said ethnic tensions at the school have calmed since the treaty was signed, but she doubts that the banners will be effective.
"They won't help," said the 17-year-old African American as she strolled past the banners in the morning rain. "The students have to help themselves."
"Maybe they will knock some sense into people," senior Jason Villarama said of the banners' provocative messages. "They're a new start for Grant."
The next step is to promote dialogue, added Villarama, who has been involved with the Peer Mediation Program for three years.
Grant students said that during breaks Armenians still claim a tree-lined spot, referred to as "Tree Land," at the front of the school, while the Latinos hang out in the back and on either side of that area.
"Everybody here is segregated in their own little way," said Villarama, pointing out student cliques during a break Thursday. "It took a rainy day for anyone to even get close," he observed of those huddled under awnings.
On Jan. 14, a day after the peace treaty was signed, inflammatory anti-Armenian graffiti denouncing the treaty was scrawled on a school building, said Principal Joe Walker. No one has been arrested in connection with the incident that police are investigating as a hate crime, according to Det. Joseph Aparicio, hate crime coordinator for the Los Angeles Police Department's Van Nuys Division.
"It was nasty, terrible stuff," Walker said of the graffiti. "So you can see we still have a lot of work to do."
Nonetheless, Walker said Grant High School will receive an award Tuesday from LAUSD trustees for negotiating the treaty and working to combat ethnic divisions.
"Everybody's heart is not in [the treaty]," Walker said. "But we have to continually work to get people to respect each other."