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Long Beach teens speak of fears, seek solutions to racial strife

January 28, 2007|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

A group of Long Beach teenagers bluntly informed city officials and community members at a forum Saturday of a stark reality: The city's campuses are divided along racial lines.

"When I got to high school, everybody split up toward their races," said Pierre Davis, 17, an African American senior at Polytechnic High School. "I wondered, why? Why are we so divided?"

The students groped for answers.

"I'm too scared to step out of my comfort zone," said Alexandra Calera, 17, a Latina senior at the school.

Amber Hines, 17, an African American senior at Wilson High School who will head to Howard University next fall, had another idea: "Our eyes opened to how the grown-ups see things. We feed off them."

The city-sponsored community forum held at Grace Brethren Church came one day after a judge ruled that eight black teenagers had beaten three white women on Halloween night out of racial hatred. The crime shook this working-class city of 490,000, among the nation's most racially diverse.

Long Beach City Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, who represents the affluent area of Bixby Knolls, where the Halloween melee took place, as well as a nearby area containing housing projects, said she envisioned the forum as the first of many events to talk about the needs of young people in Long Beach.

Three Latinos, three blacks and one white student from high schools across the city sat before microphones and answered a moderator's questions about what it's like to grow up in the city.

"I can't even wear a certain color," Davis said, referring to the fact that certain colors are associated with gangs. "I have to watch my back."

Harry Koulos, 17, who is white and the student body president of Wilson High School, said that in his neighborhood near Belmont Shore, he does not feel afraid.

"I don't think of many of those things," he said, referring to concerns raised by other students. He added that he felt grateful for the relative safety of his area but thought the diversity of his high school has helped him to become a better person.

Other students talked of the strength and support they got from their parents, church and community, but some mentioned the trauma of having parents who struggle with drug problems.

Marla Ramirez, 22, a graduate of Jordan High School who hopes to seek a doctorate in education at UCLA, said the schools need better counselors. When she was a senior, she didn't even know what college was or how to apply, she said, breaking into tears.

"What the youth need are adults who will listen," said Pierre Batton, 19, a black graduate of Poly who now attends Cal State Long Beach.

After the students spoke, Gabelich said she had listened with tears in her eyes. "We need to move closer to our kids."

One thing is clear, she said. "We need safe streets. We need to make sure our kids can get to and from school without walking in fear."

She said she supports a tax to hire more police in Long Beach.

Many in the audience of roughly 130 said they were moved by what the students had to say.

"We have some good youth," said Bruce Martin. "There's a perception that the youth are bad."

Martin spoke from a picnic table, where he was eating a hot dog and other snacks at a resource fair following the event.

Sitting next to him, Janice England, who teaches at the Grace Brethren church school, agreed.

But, she added, "it also shows we have some problems we need to work on."


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