A scuffle involving three black students and a white security guard at Knight High School in Palmdale has provoked simmering racial tensions and forced local authorities to try and find ways to defuse them.
The incident has generated such intense feelings that some residents and activists plan a protest today and a rally next month.
For some parents and students, the Sept. 18 fracas marked a continuation of what they consider a pattern of unfair punishment of black students at Knight. They draw comparisons to the racially charged "Jena Six" case in Louisiana in which six black teenagers were charged with the alleged assault of a white classmate at Jena High School after nooses had been hung from a tree at the school. The arrest of those black students fueled allegations of racial injustice.
For others, such comparisons seem unwarranted. They view the scuffle at Knight as a relatively minor and isolated incident at a school where the vast majority of students, regardless of race or ethnicity, attend classes without any unusual problems.
But what many people on all sides of the Palmdale case will agree on is that the skirmish exposed festering friction between school authorities, law enforcement and some black residents. In recent years, Palmdale's once predominantly white population has seen Latinos outnumber whites 47% to 39%, according to U.S. Census data estimates for 2006; blacks comprise almost 17%.
"The school is a microcosm of the community," said David J. Vierra, superintendent of the Antelope Valley Union High School District. "I think the issues we face in the community are one and the same. In order for us to truly deal with the issue. . . there will have to be a bridging of the gap between the school, community and parents."
The episode at Knight allegedly began when student Pleajhai Mervin, 16, dropped pieces of a birthday cake in the school's lunch area. She failed to clean up the mess to the satisfaction of the security officer and injured her wrist during a scuffle, her mother LaTrisha Majors said. The incident was recorded by a 14-year-old student who also tangled with the security guard after he failed to hand over the camera. The boy's 16-year-old sister intervened to try and help him.
All three students were booked on suspicion of battery and were suspended, their mothers and school officials said. Majors said she faced battery charges the same day for allegedly assaulting a school staffer while at Knight checking on her daughter.
The security guard, Chris Niemeyer, was placed on paid administrative leave pending the findings of an independent investigator.
Among the often emotional and sometimes angry responses to the incident was a special community meeting Oct. 1 attended by school system administrators, law enforcement officials, civil rights activists, parents and a few students.
Several parents complained at the meeting and in interviews that sheriff's deputies assigned to the school, together with school district security guards, were too quick to give black students citations for minor problems. In some cases, students unnecessarily ended up with criminal records.
"They give no thought to the impact this might have on a child's future," said Leah Evans, mother to Brennan and Bailey Lagman, who are seniors at Knight.
Evans said her eldest son, Sterling Evans, left Knight during his first year after he was charged with battery for allegedly pushing past a teacher. He graduated from another school last year with a 3.86 grade point average, Evans said.
Sharon Payne said her foster sons, Lekeem Harris, 17, and Bontae Harris, 16, were expelled in February after they scuffled with white security guards over a beanie that Lekeem wore in violation of school policy. They were charged with battery.
"The punishment was too severe," said Payne, adding that her sons had never been in trouble before.
Some parents were particularly critical of Knight principal Susan McDougal, describing her as "dismissive" and "rude." McDougal insisted that she maintains an open-door policy.
Vierra, the school superintendent, said the avenues for parents to connect with school officials included an Internet discussion board and monthly parent advisory meetings.
He said the school district might play host to regular community forums. After Sept. 18, the district approved a new management position to oversee safety on school campuses.
While many parents said they wanted Niemeyer fired, some community leaders suggested the school district reassess its approach to how its guards handle security.
Darren Parker, president of the Antelope Valley Human Relations Task Force, said clearer regulations needed to be established "so that people in security are more of a supportive role than a disciplinary [one]."
Also, he said, "it doesn't help that the security force doesn't look like the [school] population."