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Rival Latinos and blacks start melee on South L.A. campus

The high school is locked down after police officers with clubs and in riot gear break up about 600 students. Four are arrested.

May 10, 2008|Howard Blume and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

A fight between rival groups of black and Latino students at Locke High School quickly escalated into a campus-wide melee Friday, with as many as 600 students brawling until police restored calm with billy clubs.

The troubled campus in South Los Angeles was locked down after the fight broke out at 12:55 p.m., as students returned from lunch to their fifth-period classes. Overwhelmed school officials called Los Angeles police for help, but students and faculty said it took about half an hour before dozens of officers, many in riot gear, restored order.

"The kids were crazy, running from place to place, jumping on other kids," said Reggie Smith, the school's band director, who said he ran to pull his students from the melee. "Some of my kids were crying because they were walking to class with friends and they got jumped."

Los Angeles Unified School District police said that there are only two officers assigned to Locke but that the school police force brought in about 60 officers after receiving word of the brawl. The Los Angeles Police Department also dispatched more than a dozen patrol cars and about 50 officers.

Susan Cox, an LAUSD spokeswoman, said police arrested four people -- three students for fighting and one non-student for illegal possession of a knife. Four students were treated in the school nurse's office for minor injuries.

The campus at 111th and San Pedro streets has long been one of the city's most troubled. This school year has been particularly difficult, with near-daily fights -- albeit on a much smaller scale -- during much of the fall and winter. Locke is about to be reorganized as a cluster of charter schools run by Green Dot Public Schools, which will take over in July, and some faculty and staff have accused the district of letting the campus drift in its final year as a traditional public school.

"Morale has really dropped because they don't feel like they have everybody behind them," cheerleading coach Marlo Jenkins said recently. "There are just fights upon fights upon fights now."

Faculty members and Green Dot complained that L.A. Unified nearly halved its funding for non-police security aides at the start of the year. The school has been especially plagued by tagging crews -- the school employs two full-time workers just to paint over graffiti, said Green Dot's Kelly Hurley, who is managing the transition.

Faculty members also complained repeatedly about in-school ditching and a massive tardiness problem. Finally, the district restored some of the trimmed security, faculty said, and also dispatched an additional administrator to help restore order. Until then, the district had relied on Principal Travis Kiel, who'd been brought back from retirement. In recent weeks, students and teachers have reported improved conditions -- less ditching, a little less graffiti.

But then came Friday's melee, which students and teachers said was by far the worst of the year, perhaps the worst in years.

Joseph Sherlock, a senior, 17, who has been at Locke for four years, called it "my first actual encounter with a riot." He added: "I've seen fights, and I've seen fights between black and brown, but I've never seen anything like this."

Sherlock, who said he saw police use pepper spray during the melee, said tensions between African American and Latino students have not been a serious problem at the school. With an enrollment of 2,600, Locke is 65% Latino and 35% African American.

"It's not the way it's portrayed in the media; that's not what it's like at all," said Sherlock, who is black. Another black student, Ronald White, said African American and Latino students commonly divide along ethnic lines but aren't necessarily hostile. "Everybody usually just sticks to themselves," he said.

White, a 17-year-old senior, said he had just stepped from a main building into the school's grassy quad when he was met with a scene of chaos.

Hundreds of students were outside, and from what he could see, "Most people was fighting." Eventually, police began to swarm onto the campus, and White said the students began fighting the officers, who responded with their batons.

"I was in the corner, just watching," he said. "I saw a girl get hit by the police and she went down."

Senior Victor Wong, 18, said the brawl grew out of a fight two days earlier between a Latino student and an African American student. Wong said Latino students who are friends of his asked him to participate in a fight planned for Friday that was to pit 10 Latino students against 10 African American students.

"It was a crew-on-crew thing," he said, referring to graffiti gangs. "They asked for my help, but I'm graduating," he said. "I'm done with all that."

Wong said the two groups of instigators met as planned at the school's handball courts, and "all of them started going at it." Within seconds, he said, the fight escalated beyond the original two groups, and people began running throughout the campus fighting.

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