A series of violent confrontations over the last two weeks between black and Latino students at three South Los Angeles high schools has taken authorities by surprise, raising fears of widening clashes.
Police and school officials have responded with stepped-up patrols in and around Crenshaw, Manual Arts and Jordan high schools. They hope the action will calm tensions in an area with a long history of gang violence and recent ethnic shifts, with once predominantly black neighborhoods increasingly populated by Latino immigrants.
"There's profound gang issues in some of these communities, and normal tensions in the communities become problems at the schools because the schools basically mirror the community," said Edward Woodruff, who worked in the youth relations and crime prevention unit of the Los Angeles Unified School District before retiring in June.
The violence began Nov. 19 at Jordan High School when dozens of students started pummeling one another during lunch as about 200 students watched, police said.
About 60 LAPD officers and up to 40 school district officers responded, using pepper spray to disperse crowds. Before the incident ended, a police officer had been knocked down and beaten. Police arrested three students, and the campus was locked down for hours.
That incident, police believe, inspired a fight three days later between dozens of black and Latino students after classes were dismissed at Manual Arts High School. As many as 100 students were involved in that altercation, and police responded in force with dozens of officers, as well as police helicopters.
Since then, police and school officials said, scattered fights and altercations have occurred on and near the campuses. They said that since many students have cellphones, news of fights quickly spreads to other campuses, with some students trying to mimic the violence.
The latest incident occurred Monday in front of Crenshaw High School, when a 15-year-old Latino student had his jaw broken by a group of black students in what Principal Isaac Hammond described as a "hate crime." On Tuesday, a student was arrested in connection with the attack.
Tension and even occasional violent skirmishes between students of different races or ethnic groups are not unusual, officials said. But the level of discord spread across three schools has taken officials by surprise.
"We've been asking ourselves, 'What the heck is going on?' " said campus police Lt. Michael Bowman. "It doesn't follow any normal pattern."
Bowman said racially motivated fights are usually clustered around the first month and a half of the school year -- September and October -- when new students come in, or toward the end of the academic year, when many problem students no longer care whether they get in trouble.
The fights have some students, parents and those who live and work near the schools on edge.
Meri Avendano, 35, has two sons at Jordan High School, where she volunteers as an assistant. Since the fight, Avendano said, she has volunteered to watch the lunch area more and said she worries that the same problems could be replayed at the local middle school that her 11-year-old daughter attends.
"I think everyone wants to be on top of each other, and sometimes they get angry because they feel they're at a disadvantage," she said.
Meka Carter, 29, an African American resident of the Jordan Downs housing project, believes that some of the tensions are linked to language barriers and intolerance over interracial dating.
Another reason for the tensions is the perception that members of one group are thriving more than others, Carter says.
Elizabeth Chavez, 17, a Jordan High senior, said most of her classmates don't have problems with race. "But when two people decide they don't get along, that's when they go get all their friends and everybody starts to fight everybody."
She said interracial dating is definitely a source of tension between the two groups, adding that she knows from experience.
"It's not the easiest thing, because when I was dating a black guy, I had a lot of racial comments," Chavez said. "Their most common thing is, 'Stick to your own kind.' "
Jordan High Principal Stephen Strachan said the neighborhood's problems with gangs, poverty and crime spill into the school.
"The school is the community," Strachan said.
He said he was particularly disturbed that the violence at his high school sent the community the message that there was racial strife on campus. It "was unfortunate because people played on it. And I hope we're not getting copy-cat incidents as a result."
In the wake of the various incidents, campus police have been temporarily redeployed from local middle schools, other parts of the city and other shifts to bolster patrols at the three schools and their neighborhoods.
Crenshaw High School has seven police officers patrolling the campus area instead of the usual two, and the other two schools have six officers in the campus area instead of two.
Officials at Jordan are trying to deal with the problems directly. More than 200 residents, ministers and law enforcement officials attended meetings organized by the school Wednesday to discuss making the school and the neighborhood safer.
Avendano said at one of the meetings that ultimately, the responsibility to ensure that students behave and respect their peers rests with parents.
She pointed to her 4-year-old son to make her point.
"If I tell him, 'See that black guy, don't hang around with him, he'll do something to you,' then what am I doing? What kind of a lesson am I teaching him?"