In the aftermath of Friday’s riot at Fontana High School, many students and witnesses said the violence was rooted in long-standing racial tensions between blacks and Latinos in the area.
Although law-enforcement officials have stopped short of attributing the 90-minute melee that involved roughly 500 students to a racial divide, many experts on ethnic relations contend that the riot is indicative of a much broader problem.
“The tension between blacks and Latinos is not new, but it’s a recent phenomenon,” said Armando Navarro, professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside.
“This has been the pattern in L.A. County in the past few years, and now it’s reached this area. From the late 1990s to (the) present, this conflict has manifested in high schools and in prisons, and as demographics begin to favor Latinos, it’ll foster more antagonism and increased violence.”
Navarro, also coordinator for the National Alliance for Human Rights and author of “The Mexican Political Experience and Occupied Aztlan,” said as the Latino population grows, other ethnic groups often feel their space, jobs and political representation are threatened.
“It’s a growing contagion, and it’s pervasive throughout the region,” he said. “We shouldn’t look at each other as enemies but people who have been oppressed and have to compete for the crumbs of power or progress.”
Scott Brooks, assistant professor of sociology at UC Riverside, said racial tensions often reflect the economy.
Blacks and Latinos, for instance, can feel they are in direct competition for jobs, Brooks said. As youths mimic adult tensions and hear about financial struggles at home, the racial divide can spill onto school campuses, he said.
Eloise Lopez Metcalfe, director of the Teacher Education Program at UCLA, said she was not familiar with Fontana High’s situation. But, in general, she said when the first sparks of racial tension are not properly addressed, instances like Friday’s riot can result.
“Racial tensions arise because school personnel ignore the need to attend to diversity. And because we’re in a testing era, we’re spending less time on working together in the community,” Metcalfe said.
“These are long, historic tensions people think will just go away and aren’t going to go away. Historically, every time a new group moves in, others perceive them taking their resources and the new group gets pushed back.”
Carolyn Bennett Murray, professor of psychology at UC Riverside, said student unrest that involves 500 individuals shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“Both Latinos and African—Americans are very up-front groups—they’ll confront another person or group if they feel they’re treated unfairly,” Murray said.
“Whites and Asians tend to be more covert groups, where they won’t confront you, but maybe they’ll report you to authorities. So, part of it is the culture to be direct.”
Murray said the reported participation of Samoan students presents another interesting dynamic. Although they have a distinct ethnic identity, she said Samoans are often mistaken for blacks. It was unclear, however, which group the Samoan students sided with.
To limit racial conflicts and the fragmentation of a community, Murray recommended that school officials develop leadership groups to teach such skills to students, develop common projects and goals that the two groups can work on together and confront the causes of conflicts.
School officials in Fontana are exploring ways to combat racial tension and address safety concerns in the district after hundreds of students fought at Fontana High School on Friday.
Twelve city police officers will be patrolling Fontana High this week in addition to school police already stationed there. The district has also brought in more security staff to monitor other high schools and middle schools.
Police have said that 500 students were involved in Friday’s brawl. Jane Smith, superintendent of Fontana Unified School District, put the number at 150 to 200, noting that many bystanders did not participate in the violence.
Fontana police spokesman Doug Wagner said police have not determined whether the fighting was gang-related.
Although Fontana High was mostly quiet Monday, three students were arrested, one for throwing rocks and the other two for being “mouthy” and confrontational, Wagner said.
One adult and five juveniles were arrested Friday in connection with the fighting, Wagner said Monday.
The adult was sent to West Valley Detention Center and the juveniles were either released to their parents, cited or sent to San Bernardino Juvenile Hall.
Some students at Fontana High say race relations have been strained at the predominantly Latino school, where they say there are weekly fights.
“It’s basically like prison,” said 16-year-old Anthony Ball, who on Monday was suspended for five days. “All the Hispanics sit at one table and all the blacks at another table.”
He said he has friends of mixed races, but at school, people of different races keep to themselves.
Anthony’s mother, Sandra Ball, was furious at lunchtime Monday when she picked up her son from school. She also pulled her younger son, 14-year-old Laquan Ball, out of school because she was worried for the safety of both boys, she said.
“I don’t teach my sons this racial stuff,” she said. “They’re trying to make an example out of my son.”
Sophomore Taleeb Alexander said the threat of violence has been building on and off campus.
“I’m the only African-American in all six of my classes,” he said. “Sometimes it can be really uncomfortable due to all the racial tension.”
Geovanny Arreola, 14, who is Latino, said he also wasn’t surprised by violence at the school.
“It makes me sad because my people got hurt,” he said. “The police got really violent with the Hispanics and with everyone.”
To address race relations and safety at Fontana High, administrators and Smith met Monday with student leaders at the school.
One idea that came from the talks will be realized immediately. Starting this week, students will be able to call an anonymous tip line to report any threatening or suspicious behavior. The tip line’s number was not available late Monday.
District officials are considering forming committees of teachers, students and parents to talk about relations between races.
They are also considering asking students to wear identification cards on a lanyard on campus.
The district is considering a longer-term solution of expediting the construction of a new high school, Smith said.
Arlene Piazza, board clerk for the school district, said a new high school would alleviate crowding at existing schools and teachers would be more aware of students’ sentiments and more successful in preventing violence. About 4,200 students attend Fontana High, according to Smith.
Smith said district staff were not aware before Friday that race relations at the school were so strained.
Smith said that while it is difficult to tell what factors contributed most to last week’s fight, she hopes the district will address issues outside race relations, including crowded high schools and students who lack enough credits to graduate.
School-board member Kathy Binks said Friday’s brawl is forcing the district to reevaluate how it treats race relations.
But she added that “The first teachers that kids have are the parents in the home setting. And like I’ve said, we can’t try to change what they’ve been taught, or what parents have overlooked, or what they haven’t learned for 14, 15, 16, 18 years.
Staff writer Wes Woods II contributed to this report.