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Young Love, Old Divisions

An African American boy and a Latina, both 14, are unwavering sweethearts at Jefferson High, where racial strife is a fact of life.

May 13, 2006|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

For weeks, Lionel Kelly studied the shy girl sitting a row ahead of him instead of his earth science lessons.

As any 14-year-old boy would, he first noticed how cute she was. Her smooth skin, pink as seashells. Black hair dyed the color of applesauce, curls sprayed stiff, twisted into a long ponytail.

It did not matter that he was black and she was a Latina, even on this Jefferson High School campus scarred by last year's violent student clashes that cut through black and brown like barbed wire. It did not matter to him, even as stories of racial brawls leaked out of other schools, jails, and juvenile halls.

This was the start of Lionel's freshman year. He was trying to navigate safely through high school. He knew that he liked this girl. He also knew that when you are with your girl, "gang bangers don't mess with you."

Already, Lionel had made some critical choices on his own. When a group of boys confronted him on the P.E. field at school, challenging him to claim a gang, Lionel told them he didn't bang. When a new friend encouraged him to ditch classes and tag school walls with graffiti, Lionel chose not to.

P.E. teacher Linda St. John had been watching the growing friendship between Lionel, one of her favorite students, and the tagger. She worried about Lionel, a dimple-cheeked student who called her "ma'am."

This, she knew, was the age when nice boys can make decisions that turn terrible.

St. John called Lionel into her office. "Get an education," the bubbly white woman with big blue eyes told Lionel, "and you will be a success."

He pinned his hopes on the girl who always wore a glimmering Jesus necklace, baggy sweat shirts and no makeup.

Her name was Beatriz Chacon. At 14, she was smart, focused and fiercely stubborn. She was determined to attend college and have a career to support her parents.

At first, Beatriz tried to ignore Lionel's gaze burning through her. Boys made her wary. Friends told her to avoid the ones in gangs and crews. She heard girls had to have sex with those boys.

Beatriz decided if she could not find a worthy boyfriend, she wouldn't have one at all.

But maybe Lionel would prove himself worthy. Never had she fallen for an African American. Now here he was, sweet-talking, gentle, harmless. He dressed sharp: creased jeans, clean sneakers, colorful Ecko shirts. His dimples made her weak. He walked next to her on the track during P.E. and wrote flirty notes in geography and science.

One day last August, Beatriz agreed to be his girl, but not at the expense of her grades. Regardless of race, Beatriz was too young to date. Her mother could not know about the romance. Their love, Beatriz told him, would live in school.

In school was where Lionel needed her most.

At lunch, Beatriz and Lionel hug for so long, the school principal tells them to stop. Beatriz daydreams about going to a restaurant or a movie with him, someday. Until then, they steal kisses on campus, when they hope no one is looking.

But at Jefferson -- where hundreds of black and Latino students jumped into a series of melees last year, resulting in 25 student arrests -- someone is always looking.

More than 100 newly installed surveillance cameras watch the campus. During the two lunch periods, more than 35 administrators, security guards, counselors and school police officers supervise.

The couple knows students watch them too. One morning, Lionel walked toward a group of black students. A girl looked him up and down in disgust. He heard her say: "Oh, that's that boy that goes with that Mexican girl."

At lunch, Lionel recounted the story to Beatriz.

"So people don't want you with a Mexican girl?" she asked.

"Don't even trip about it," Lionel replied.

Jefferson is 92% Latino and 8% African American. At lunch, about 100 black students hang out near a senior class activities banner. Latino students fan out across the rest of the campus.

Another interracial couple cuddles by shaded tables. Behind the cafeteria, two best friends, one black and the other Latino, share jokes. But mostly, the races stay apart.

So far this year, there have been no large-scale race-related brawls on campus, said Principal Juan Flecha. There have been one-on-one squabbles, some of them between Latino and black students.

Other campuses have not been as fortunate. This school year, race-related brawls have roiled Fremont, Gardena and the district's newest high school at the old Santee Dairy, according to district officials.

Flecha knocks on a wooden conference table: He is hoping the school will make it to June, quietly. This year officials sent 800 students to a different school. The district spent millions on cameras, lights and landscaping. It added nine teachers and two counselors.

With more staff and fewer students, Flecha said, it is easier to quell violence on campus.

What happens outside, however, is beyond his reach.

It is a Tuesday in February, Lionel and Beatriz's six-month "anniversary" as a couple.

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