An emergency task force began investigating Thursday at Hug High School to identify reasons for the ongoing racial tension between black and Hispanic students.
Interim Superintendent Paul Dugan said he formed the group after receiving calls and e-mails from staff, community members and parents about the growing number of fights and vandalism on campus since the start of the school year.
“There is definite racial tension and we can’t ignore it or deny that it’s there,” Dugan said. “I don’t believe that Hug is out of control. But I believe it is unacceptable.”
The task force will share its findings with a committee of parents, students, faith-based leaders, law enforcement, teachers and administrators.
“Then their task will be to develop recommendations in a rather short time frame to the school and district about ideas, to help improve the situation at Hug,” Dugan said.
Crowded classrooms, a new administrative staff, changing demographics, gang-affiliated students and a poor school layout are some of the reasons Dugan cited for the rising tension.
Since the beginning of the year there have been 112 suspensions on the campus of 1,283 students, including 34 for fighting or battery.
Officials said the most recent fights were Oct. 6 between a black male and a Hispanic male and Oct. 7 between a black girl and a Hispanic girl. Vandals broke windows last week around campus, including the administrative office.
Ida Fortunes, a ninth-grader, said she hears about two or three fights a week between blacks and Hispanics.
“I think they should start to get along more,” the 15-year-old said. “All this fighting because of race. It don’t make no sense.”
More than 75 percent of the Hug High School’s student population is minority, with an October count showing Hispanics making up more than 54 percent, blacks slightly less than 10 percent and Asian/Pacific Islanders 9 percent.
Hispanics and blacks account for more than 79 percent of the suspensions.
Blacks who grew up in northeast Reno looked forward to making Hug High School their home, but the school has a growing Hispanic population, said Debra Feemster, senior director of equity and diversity for the school district and a former Hug principal.
“One student mentioned to me last year that the school is now being taken over by Hispanics,” Feemster said. “And from a kid’s perspective, that’s pretty tough to deal with. In my opinion, as they grew up in the school system, they believed that once they got to Hug, that was the utopia.”
Task force members are former Hug principal Gil Folk; Roberto Nerey, parent and community activist; Otto Kelly, a minister and former probation officer; Delores Feemster, a former school staff member and volunteer; and William Tanata, a Tongan and part-time school aide.
“They’re going to talk and listen to teachers, staff and students,” Dugan said.
He said the staff at Hug can’t handle the problems alone.
Principal Tom Kallay sent a letter to parents to alert them that a team would be on campus.
“I am disheartened, as I know some of you are, about the unacceptable behaviors of a small portion of our students that are negatively impacting the atmosphere on our campus and the teaching and learning at Hug,” Kallay said in the letter.
Coming to grips
Student Jennifer Nelson said the racial tension recently was discussed in one of her classes.
“We didn’t really come up with a solution,” said Nelson, .
But she said she keeps hearing rumors of a closed campus, more suspensions and expulsions.
“But what about the future?” she asked. “These kids are our future. They’re going to be the people leading later on.”
Tristan Ryan said she can sit back and “watch the people fight for the stupid reasons.” Thursday was ‘50s day at the high school, so Ryan wore a powder blue poodle skirt.
“White people, they usually don’t bring them into anything,” the 17-year-old senior said. “It’s usually between the Mexicans, the Tongans and the blacks. They’re the main races here.”
But Ryan, who also attended Reed High School, said she loves Hug because “you get all these different cultures.”
Folk said he, too, feels a connection to the Reno school, where he served as principal from 1972 to 1981.
“My heart has always been at Hug,” he said last week while serving as acting principal while Kallay was out of town.
Folk said he had to deal with two fights.
The first was between a black male student and a Hispanic male student, he said.
“Part of that was racially motivated and I think part of it was colors,” Folk said. “One was showing red and one was showing blue.”
He said he quickly called about 10 male students to his office for conflict resolution.
Marco Martinez and Tony Ramirez said they were two of the students who participated in the meeting.
“We just decided that, if we got into any problems with one of them people, then we would just talk about it,” said the 15-year-old Martinez. “We can talk about it now. Back then, we would just go at it.”
Folk said there also was a fight during a nutrition break Oct. 7 between a black female and a Hispanic female, which drew about 100 onlookers.
“Added to the fuel was there was a parent on campus here to pick up her kids to take them someplace,” he said. “She got into it.”
Mary Alexander, the mother of 15-year-old Everette and Ashley Ball, 16, remembers that morning differently.
“I never laid a hand on anybody,” the 52-year-old parent said. “I never touched anybody or anything. Then all of a sudden all hell broke loose.”
Her daughter left the car to get a book from the campus when she was hit.
“The Hispanic girl popped her,” said Alexander, who is black.
Alexander, a teacher’s aide at Glenn Duncan Elementary School whom everyone calls Miss Mary, said she followed her daughter and campus police to the administrative building. She said she was surprised when police handcuffed her and arrested her on suspicion of interfering with an officer. During an emergency school board meeting, she was suspended with pay from her job.
Her daughter was taken to Jan Evans detention center and suspended for two weeks.
Ashley Ball’s girlfriend, Chanae Smith, also was arrested for allegedly causing a disturbance.
Smith’s mother, Tina Smith, and Alexander said campus police unfairly target their children.
Since school began on Aug. 30, Alexander’s son, Everette, has been suspended for four weeks: one for making threatening remarks to a student he said he did not make; one for wearing a “Kill Bill” T-shirt; and two weeks for allegedly assaulting a police officer the day his mother and sister were arrested.
“I’ve probably failed all my classes,” Everette Ball said.
Alexander and Tina Smith, who attended Hug, said they want their children to remain at the school.
“At first I thought about taking her out of school and I thought, ‘No way,’” Tina Smith said. “This is everybody’s school. I’m not going to let them stop them from their dreams and goals.”
Anna Flores said she hears the stories from her 17-year-old son, Junior Raygoza, about black males wanting to fight him and calling him names.
The tension not only is on school grounds but also in the neighborhood, she said.
“I tell him to stay out of trouble,” Flores said. “I don’t worry just about my children. I worry about who is next. I don’t want to see my son dead.”