Elk Grove Seeking Answers To Racial Tension In School

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.

Sims

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,”

it began.

As a task force completes an examination of racial

issues in the Elk Grove Unified School District, that Feb. 18 fight—and

a separate incident in which hate-crime charges were filed against two Laguna

Creek High School students accused of plotting to kill their classmates—have

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 dialogue—and 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. What’s 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

County.

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, “it’s

like breathing, almost.”

“If we don’t make it a priority as a

preventive measure,” said Teresa Bandy, an English teacher at Franklin

High School, “then I’m afraid something will make it a priority as

a reactionary measure.”

The Elk Grove High School campus is a case in

point.

Tensions had been running high all year. Elizabeth

Martinez could feel it. By the start of February, though, she thought they were

getting worse.

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 girls—one

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 don’t.

Changing times

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 district’s 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 February’s 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

years ago.

According to district figures, whites were 34

percent of the district’s 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”

mentality.

“I’ve seen that change,” he said.

“It’s made some people more outwardly bigoted, it’s 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 didn’t trust

her. Other kids called her racial names. She missed the February fight, but

wasn’t 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 everyone’s 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, , didn’t want to go near

the commotion. At the end of fifth period, she heard the bell ring—one,

two, three, four, five times.

Some students didn’t 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 they’re not equipped,”

said Teresa Bandy, who advises a diversity program at Franklin High called Tools

for Tolerance.

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 clash—roots they believe start at home.

“We have had diversity training, and, quite

frankly, it’s not helping because we’re 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 can’t make a connection.

Multicultural programs are available at many of

the district’s schools.

Franklin has started a diversity council. A tolerance

group at Laguna Creek puts on a program for underclassmen. Sheldon has a parent

support group.

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. “I’m

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

nervous.

“I hear people saying that Elk Grove is such

a good place to be, it’s so perfect,” she said. “It’s not.

It’s like any other place with problems. . . It’s diverse, but it’s

separated. People are using the word ‘diverse’ as a word that means

we’re a mixed-up town. We’re not. We’re 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 group’s report. For race relations to improve in schools, they must

improve in the community.

“It’s not a school problem, it’s

a community problem,” he said. “The whole community has to be part

of the solution.”

Michael Sims is hopeful—to 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.

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