Jocelyn Wiener, Sacramento Bee, Jul. 18
After the fight, what Michael Sims remembered
most was the applause. More than losing the music, more than the punches, his
classmates pleasure bothered him.
Sims had been dancing to hip hop with friends
in front of the Elk Grove High School gym. More than 1,000 students were in
the main quad, drawn out by the February sunshine.
Sims, who is African American, heard some white
students complaining: Not that music. A security guard unplugged the boombox.
Students began to clap and cheer.
A water bottle soared through the air. One student
threw a punch. A group of students jumped him. Somewhere along the way, the
fight seemed to divide by race.
rushed to pull people apart. Police came. Later that day, the principal sent
home a letter with students: I want to make you aware of a situation,
As a task force completes an examination of racial
issues in the Elk Grove Unified School District, that Feb. 18 fightand
a separate incident in which hate-crime charges were filed against two Laguna
Creek High School students accused of plotting to kill their classmateshave
sparked a communitywide debate over one searing public question:
Why is there racial tension in Elk Grove schools?
If some students, parents and teachers have their
way, the answers the task force likely will propose next month will have far-reaching
effect, impacting staff diversity and development, program funding, student
and parental involvement, community dialogueand trust.
Elk Grove Unified faces formidable challenges
implementing any task force recommendation to improve student relations. Its
finances are constrained, having cut about $40 million from its budget in the
past two years. The biggest district in the Sacramento region, Elk Grove Unified
has crowded schools: Sheldon High, with nearly 3,300 students, was the largest
in the area last year. Whats more, the superintendent who appointed the
15-member task force quit the district last month to take a job with the county.
Over the past four months, the Task Force on Expectations
for Student Unity has conducted about 20 meetings, interviewing students, parents,
staff and educators in the sprawling district that covers one-third of Sacramento
Race is an issue nearly all school districts confront.
But in Elk Grove, many are adamant that change needs to happen soon.
Race is so close to the surface, said Marjorie
Beazer, an African American mother of three elementary school students, its
like breathing, almost.
If we dont make it a priority as a
preventive measure, said Teresa Bandy, an English teacher at Franklin
High School, then Im afraid something will make it a priority as
a reactionary measure.
The Elk Grove High School campus is a case in
Tensions had been running high all year. Elizabeth
Martinez could feel it. By the start of February, though, she thought they were
During her freshman year, Martinez, who is part
Mexican American, part white, heard students toss around racial slurs. Her first
job as a peer counselor was to settle a dispute between two groups of girlsone
black, one white.
Now a junior and homecoming chairwoman, Martinez
thought school spirit was down, frustration palpable. I think it really
just needed one little flame to ignite the whole fire, she said.
To an outsider, lunchtime at Elk Grove High resembles
many other schools. Asian American students have a few tables. African American
students have a few others. White students hang out in the quad. Latino students
hang out elsewhere. Some students mix. Many dont.
Two decades ago, Elk Grove Unified had fewer than
15,000 students and just two high schools: Elk Grove and Valley. Last year,
the student population topped 55,600. The districts seventh high school,
Monterey Trail, opens in August.
Frank Lucia, the principal at Elk Grove High last
year, said overcrowding was a key factor in Februarys fight. Built for
1,500 students, the high school was home to 2,800.
The district hopes to reduce its high schools
to an average size of about 2,200 students. But, for now, students can become
lost, said Odie Douglas, Franklin High principal.
What you have to deal with is, how do we
personalize our connection with children? he said.
The growth brings rapid demographic changes. More
than 80 languages are spoken in Elk Grove Unified, and last year more than 21
percent of students spoke limited English, compared with under 7 percent 15
According to district figures, whites were 34
percent of the districts students during the past school year. Asians,
Pacific Islanders and Filipinos were 26 percent, Latinos were 20 percent and
African Americans were 19 percent. Twenty years ago, whites were 70 percent
of the population.
Mark Bandy, who, like his wife, Teresa, is an
English teacher at Franklin High, graduated from Elk Grove High in 1983. Bandy
said the school then had a subtle everything-the-white-way-is-the-right-way
Ive seen that change, he said.
Its made some people more outwardly bigoted, its made other
people, like me, really think about things.
Bandy believes changing those attitudes begins,
in part, with the staff. But for Markishia Haines, finding someone at Elk Grove
High to relate to has proven difficult.
A sophomore, Haines, who is African American,
often has felt miserable at school. She thought her teachers didnt trust
her. Other kids called her racial names. She missed the February fight, but
wasnt surprised by it.
Educators say students prosper when they think
teachers understand them. The one African American woman Haines trusted has
left the school.
Staff diversity is on everyones mind. At
Elk Grove High last year, the certified staff was 83 percent white, 9 percent
Latino, 6 percent Asian, Pacific Islander or Filipino. No teacher, counselor
or administrator was African American.
The numbers are similar districtwide. More than
78 percent of counselors, administrators and the 3,000-plus teachers are white,
7 percent are Latino, 7 percent are Asian, Pacific Islander, or Filipino and
5 percent are African American.
Having a diverse working staff is paramount,
said Steve Winlock, associate superintendent of elementary and middle-school
education. All kids need to see role models.
He said Elk Grove Unified, like all school districts
in the state, faces a shortage of teachers of color. To improve their numbers,
he said, the district might start identifying potential candidates earlier,
perhaps at the community-college level.
They wanted to talk
On the day of the fight, Sarah McVay hid in the
student government office. McVay, , didnt want to go near
the commotion. At the end of fifth period, she heard the bell ringone,
two, three, four, five times.
Some students didnt go back to class. Later,
many wanted to talk about what was happening. But, they complained, their teachers
did not want to discuss the fight.
The vast majority of teachers really want
to have those kinds of discussions, but they feel theyre not equipped,
said Teresa Bandy, who advises a diversity program at Franklin High called Tools
Elk Grove Unified offers voluntary diversity training
seminars that more than 800 staff members have taken. Some teachers say training
should be mandatory and the district should appoint an administrator to coordinate
diversity programs districtwide.
But others say the programs do not touch the roots
of the culture clashroots they believe start at home.
We have had diversity training, and, quite
frankly, its not helping because were missing a huge piece of it,
which is the parent, said Cheryl Adams, a fifth-grade teacher at +Sierra
Enterprise Elementary School.
Adams said she sees a growing rift, not just between
students, but between parents and staff. The result, she said, is that many
teachers believe they cant make a connection.
Multicultural programs are available at many of
the districts schools.
Franklin has started a diversity council. A tolerance
group at Laguna Creek puts on a program for underclassmen. Sheldon has a parent
A few times each year, Elk Grove High invites
about 100 students to an intensive, all-day forum called Unity Day.
At the end of the first Unity Day two years ago,
students cried, hugged and supported one another, said Dan Newton, the activities
director. One football player, he said, apologized for stereotyping. Im
more than this jersey, he said, in tears.
Still, the program reaches just 300 or 400 students
a year. Newton wants to expand it. But he needs the funds.
Just a spotted town
The day after the fight, everyone spoke in whispers
in the quad. Some students skipped school. The sale of bottled drinks was prohibited.
Security was everywhere. Jasmine Smith, a freshman of mixed ethnicity, felt
I hear people saying that Elk Grove is such
a good place to be, its so perfect, she said. Its not.
Its like any other place with problems. . . Its diverse, but its
separated. People are using the word diverse as a word that means
were a mixed-up town. Were not. Were just a spotted town.
The school is only a small part of it.
That, said Barry Loncke, the retired Sacramento
Superior Court judge who chairs the unity task force, is the cornerstone of
his groups report. For race relations to improve in schools, they must
improve in the community.
Its not a school problem, its
a community problem, he said. The whole community has to be part
of the solution.
Michael Sims is hopefulto a degree. During
that February day halfway through his junior year, he pulled one student out
of the fight, then another.
He watched a group rush toward the melee. The
students saw him making peace. They stopped.
Sims thinks his intervention might have made a
difference. If nothing else, he said, it showed not everyone wanted to fight.
Afterward, the security guard thanked him.