Speaking before more than 50 fellow students this week at Edison High School, junior David Escalante painted an evocative and troubling picture of the tense relations between Latino and black students at the south Stockton campus.
"It's kind of like a prison yard here: Hispanics here, African-Americans in the hallways only, not a lot of mixed ethnic groups here," the 16-year-old Escalante said. "There's not enough communication between the races, and it causes problems. There are a lot of fights at this school over such ridiculous reasons."
A fight might be over a $5 debt. It might be over a rumor. Earlier this school year, Principal Brian Biedermann said, a fight on ethnic lines erupted over a lone purple grape. One student threw the grape. Another was hit by it.
The campus climates at Edison and at Chavez High were a central topic at the schools this week. At the request of Stockton Unified, a representative from the United States Department of Justice's Community Relations Service led daylong gatherings at each school aimed at addressing a full range of student concerns.
Administrators identified student leaders from a spectrum of each school's demographics. The students were arranged in small groups to discuss their issues and to brainstorm. Adult facilitators from the Stockton area were assigned to each group to keep the discussions focused and productive.
Similar sessions are set for next month at Franklin and Stagg high schools. Stockton Unified officials are hoping the student-centered conflict-resolution sessions will be a big step toward making the campuses more peaceful and productive.
"The value of what you are telling us is stuff we're sometimes paying consultants tens of thousands of dollars to tell us," Biedermann told his students at the close of Edison's session.
Student concerns at the schools ran the gamut. They spoke of fighting, edgy race relations, stereotyping, outdated and crumbling textbooks, teachers who fail to control unruly students, unprepared substitute teachers, the aroma of marijuana wafting in the air, smelly bathrooms, cheap toilet paper and less-than-palatable sweet-potato fries in the cafeteria.
A sampling of concerns from various Edison and Chavez students:
-- One student cited a textbook that refers not to euros but to francs, which have not been the currency in France for more than a decade. "It kind of makes me feel like they don't think anything other than math, engineering or science is important," the student said.
-- "I feel like (substitute teachers) should be at least educated in what they are subbing for. It shouldn't just be some random person."
-- "Violence is the culture now. We need to break that chain."
-- A girl in Edison's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program: "I'm wearing my uniform now, and I get this a lot: People think I'm a tomboy, I'm tough, I'm mean. I'm not that mean."
The Department of Justice program was part of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Community Relations Service was instituted at the time to serve as a neutral third party to assist communities experiencing conflict based on race, nationality, sexual orientation, religion and disability.
"Conflict resolution is our job," said the service's Carol Russo, who is leading the Stockton Unified sessions.
Students and the local facilitators said they found this week's sessions valuable.
"In the culture now, people tend to isolate themselves," Edison junior Tony Gladney said. "Now we see the problems. We know what everybody thinks. We can be that start. It has to start somewhere."
Dave Cicileo, who served as a facilitator during the Edison session, said the program "has the potential to empower teens and engage them in being part of the solution."
"I think it could start with this nucleus of students and grow to affect the city at large," added Cicileo, 32, who is with Restore Stockton, a nonprofit organization.
As part of this week's proceedings, a core group of student participants was selected to regularly meet with the administrators at their schools.
The goal is to maintain the momentum from this week and give the students an ongoing opportunity to bring concerns and new ideas to their school officials.
"I'm a huge advocate of giving youth a voice," said YMCA program coordinator Whitney Ramirez, 26, who served as a facilitator at Edison. "They are the untapped resource of the city. They have energy, they have ideas, they have vision. I think they are the ones who are going to be at the forefront of changing the city."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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