At Hawthorne High School recently, students easily identified areas where different groups hang out: the basketball players are in a corner near the cafeteria, the rockers near the stage, ditchers and smokers near the school gates and the JV football players and cheerleaders near the field.
The exercise was aimed at focusing students' attention on the many social and cultural barriers formed by cliques on campus and the stereotypes they can engender. Afterward, Hawthorne senior Naya Pierce said she hoped her classmates would begin to reach beyond their tight-knit circles but admitted it would be slow going.
"In school clubs I don't think it will be hard, but school-wide, I don't think there's a lot of school spirit here," said Pierce, 17.
Hawthorne, which has experienced racial tensions among students, is one of many schools in Los Angeles and nationwide taking steps to broaden students' interactions and fight the negative attitudes that can form around social cliques.
In lunchrooms and playgrounds, educators say, children are self-segregating at younger ages and in expanding categories: preppies, geeks, punks, emos, oddballs, hipsters, stoners and delinquents, popular kids, couples and loners, to name some.
Seeking out friends with common interests is not necessarily harmful and can help students become involved on campus, childhood experts say. But such activity becomes destructive when others are excluded based on status, wealth, race and gender, they say. Cliques can affect school culture, increase tensions and embolden bullies. But in addressing such issues, schools are finding that it can be hard to break entrenched habits.
"Cliques are part of how adolescents form their own identity," said David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt. "But involvement can be positive or negative. For some, they provide structure and keep them from getting into trouble, but they can also encourage hatred and bigotry. For teachers and parents, it's important to pay attention."
Hawthorne and other schools are trying new ways to push students out of their comfort zones, such as small-group discussions and assigning random lunch partners. Many schools will participate this week in Mix It Up Day, a national project sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance program that encourages students to cross social boundaries.
The Laurence School, a K-6 private school in Valley Glen, has participated in the event the last two years and now holds "lunch mixers" every month.
"We wanted to break barriers down that we saw were happening at a very early age," said Assistant Principal Jeffrey Tremblay. "Kids that are really good in art or sports tend to sit together, boys sit with boys, and girls with girls. We really wanted to use lunchtime and recess . . . to teach kids to respect each other."
During a recent lunch, students sat at courtyard tables and asked ice-breaker questions about their favorite colors and movies. Shayna Sternin, 10, and Paige Howard, 11, said problems had occurred when some students tried to form an exclusive clique with only their wealthy peers.
But most other students rejected such exclusivity, they said. Shayna said the lunch mixers have helped her to approach classmates she doesn't know and not feel like an outsider. "Before, I might have chosen to sit alone rather than with new people because it felt safer," she said.
Students in the Human Rights club at Carson High School have sponsored such Mix It Up activities as scavenger hunts and bingo games, said Merri Weir, a U.S. history teacher. But Weir conceded that students still tend to select friends based on race and ethnicity.
"I would love to say it's been a monumental success," Weir said. "I think in little ways yes, but in big ways no, I don't see a campus-wide effect. My philosophy is every one is connected. The person who you're shunning because you think they're weird could be the person who changes your life."
Cliques can easily effect learning, said Mark Kuranz, a counselor at J.I. Case High School in Racine, Wis., and past president of the American School Counselors' Assn.
"I've had kids say I can't take that class because . . . none of my friends will be there," he said.
Kuranz said social divisions among children in early grades are reinforced by media and even students' families. Many schools and students refuse to acknowledge the existence of campus cliques, he said.
Hawthorne teacher Kathy Givens, said she hoped her school's upcoming participation in tolerance activities will be the start of a long-needed dialogue. "This could be something good. Before, even talking about race, you just sort of hoped it worked itself out."