Stephen Flagg boards the No. 70 bus near his Austin home early one morning with classmates and travels east along Division Street through his African-American community.
The bus cruises into the heavily Latino neighborhoods of Humboldt Park and West Town, passing under the massive metal Puerto Rican flags that arch Division, and drops the teenagers at Clemente High School.
Though it is eight months into the school year, Flagg, 16, who attends Clemente because his neighborhood school was closed for poor performance, says he still does not feel comfortable at his new, mainly Latino school.
“They don’t want us here. We don’t want to be here,” he said. “Everybody is different, and that’s why everybody is fighting.”
Since Chicago school officials began phasing out Austin High School two years ago and dispersing hundreds of teenagers to crosstown Clemente, violence has invaded the hallways and spilled across campus. Student morale has plummeted. And racial tensions—already simmering under the surface—have bubbled over.
This year, nine teachers, an assistant principal and two deans were threatened or hit. Students were stabbed, choked and robbed, school reports show. A schoolyard brawl sucked in 40 students.
Amid all this, the principal of 10 years abruptly quit in March without a specific reason.
The school, an eight-story glass and brick building at Division and Western Avenue, has long been an extension of the community. Named after Puerto Rican baseball hero Roberto Clemente, the campus anchors the Fiesta Boricua, a Puerto Rican heritage festival that stretches down Division. In 1990 nearly 60 percent of the student body was Puerto Rican.
But in the 1990s, Mexicans flooded into Humboldt Park, West Town and Logan Square. Last year, Puerto Ricans made up only 36 percent of Clemente’s enrollment. Mexicans constituted 31 percent.
Many Mexican students say they are looked down on and treated differently from their Puerto Rican classmates.
A few years ago, the school’s Mexican club organized its own prom, after some Mexican students complained that the disc jockeys played hip-hop and rap preferred by Puerto Ricans, while they prefer Duranguense music. Some complain that the school offers more support to the baseball team, composed mainly of Puerto Ricans, than it does to the soccer team, made up mainly of Mexicans.
“This is our school too, but we feel like we are not welcome,” said Leonardo Delvalle, a Guatemalan senior soccer player.
On top of this stew of racial and cultural division, the school system instituted Renaissance 2010.
Though Austin students began transferring two years ago, problems did not surface until this year, when their enrollment hit 250, school officials said.
By early October, gang warfare erupted. School officials, security guards and students say the Gangster Disciples from Austin warred with the Latino Vice Lords and Lovers for control of the school. Students were jumped outside the school as they exited for fire drills. Fistfights broke out in the hallways.
Only a small portion of the school’s 2,400 students were involved in the violence, but it put a dark cloud over the school.
“Girls were fighting over guys, guys were fighting over gangs, guys were fighting for respect, girls and guys were fighting for territory,” said Michael Rivera, a junior on the baseball team. “At first it was just the gangs, but then it went from gangs to different cultures, from gangs to race. People were fighting just because they were different.”