Fights occurred at six L.A. area high schools this spring

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Pride, better teachers, a safer neighborhood. These are some of the solutions the students came up for how to fix the culture at Jefferson HS.
Photo by Managing Editor Libby Hartigan

On April 14 and 18, fights broke out between more than 100 black and Latino students at Jefferson High School south of downtown. The apparent cause was that some students had conflicts, and called on their friends and classmates to join them in fighting. But why did these disagreements, which happen at every high school, turn into such a big brawl? A group of Jefferson students agreed to write about the complex problems that led to the fights, and suggest solutions.

Many of them wondered why Jefferson’s fights appeared in the news, while recent fights at other schools got little coverage. As Gabriela Penaloza wrote, "Now everyone knows that the school is bad and they are going to think that everyone is as bad as those students involved in the fights."

These students used to attend Jefferson’s main campus, but now go to school at a special program on the nearby campus of L. A. Trade Tech College, where they take college classes along with their high school curriculum. They felt all Jefferson students would benefit from their program’s approach: strict rules, caring teachers, better security, motivation to be academically successful and a culture of mutual respect.

Under LAUSD plans, Jefferson will divide the main campus into nine small learning communities in July.

I wish those fights never happened

By Gabriela Penaloza

The fights at Jefferson High School made me feel even less proud of the school because I knew that the school was bad academically and everything, but I never thought that the students would riot. Now everyone knows that the school is bad and they are going to think that everyone is as bad as those students involved in the fights. People are not going to talk about the students in the Trade Tech program, and how good they are doing. I am proud of my race, but would never fight as they did because that just makes us look bad. If we want to defend our race, we need to do it peacefully, not with violence.

The school doesn’t seem to care

Unenforced rules

At Jefferson High, students know that the school policies are not enforced enough; therefore they don’t fear the consequences. When we attended the Jefferson main campus, we saw that students liked joining fights because they knew they were not going to get caught since they had lousy security. Not only was there bad security, but even the counselors didn’t seem interested in how the students were progressing. They didn’t enforce the attendance regulations, and counselors never cared about our graduation requirements or grades and even less about any difficulties we were going through. These may seem like minor problems, but over time they accumulate and cause students to be furious and finally take it out on others. The counselors and staff only care about getting paid—they even say it sometimes. One teacher once told us, "If you guys don’t want to learn, that’s on you. I am still getting paid whether you learn or not." This is why Jefferson is at the bottom of the list in test scores, because they never care to teach the students the right way and make them understand that this is their future.

The lack of school materials is another big factor why students don’t perform well in school. How do you expect a student to want to read from books that are all tagged up and that have ripped pages? It is a fact that in order to learn good things you must be in a healthy and clean environment, but at Jefferson we definitely don’t have this.
—Luis Contreras, Cynthia Gonzalez, Wendy Merino
Students need support

When I used to go to Jefferson’s main campus, I didn’t care about nothing. I was proud about the wrong things like ditching classes and not doing classwork. Teachers would not even explain what we had to do. Now that I am attending Jefferson/Trade Tech, I am proud of going to school. I am proud of having perfect grades. I will be proud of graduating on stage. When the teachers care and know your name, then it makes you do all your work and have good grades. For example, my geometry teacher asks us if we are having problems doing the work. He understands us if we are having problems at home and can’t concentrate. Many teachers at Jefferson’s main campus don’t do that.
—Olga Rosales

Teachers don’t encourage us to be successful

The school culture at Jefferson contributed to the fights. People at Jefferson are like crabs in a bucket. When one tries to get to the top, the others pull them right back to the bottom with everyone else. Teachers should be more committed to their jobs and help the students to do well rather than just giving them Fs and moving on. The school has become a place where students go to "kick it" instead of focusing on receiving good grades. The teachers are only interested in receiving their paychecks and going home. This does not help us students better ourselves in any way. Students should be motivated instead of being put down and being told that we will never amount to anything. These are everyday situations at the Jefferson campus. It’s up to administrators to make a difference and fix the problems.
—Ana Granados, Rosa Flores, Derrick Alfaro and Francis Partida

Students didn’t want to go to class

I don’t think the fights were about racial tension or gang-related. I think it was about the students not wanting to go to class. It happened at Jefferson because they don’t have any discipline. When I was attending the main campus, I saw teachers who would let students stay in their class then they were supposed to be in another class. A lot of students were late to school and teachers didn’t even care. I know this because I was one of the students going late to school.

In our program, the teachers have us busy with work so that we do not have time to think about rioting on campus. Also, if we had started a melee, Ms. Gutierrez wouldn’t have let us start another one the way they did at Jeff. If I were currently attending the main campus, I would try to move to another school. I would feel anxious, wondering, what is going to happen today? What if something happens to me?
—Patty Gutierrez

Harsh neighborhood realities affect students

A scary walk to school

Students wake up in the morning, and on their way to school they take a good look around. They see walls filled with graffiti and old houses that seem like only a miracle is keeping them standing. They continue walking, tripping on trash, fearful of a gangster robbing or beating them. Or maybe getting shot in a drive-by shooting or getting run over by a speeding car. Continue walking, and you realize something smells weird. You look carefully and it’s someone smoking marijuana. And you say to yourself, "What’s wrong with these people, they’re not afraid to smoke drugs in public anymore?"

Finally you arrive at school, only to see more gangsters and drug smoking. A school where everyone has given up, where teachers just go to get their paychecks and students just go to hang out and chill. A school where gangs and crews seem to rule. You look at the clock and you read the sign that says, "Time will pass, but will you?" You ignore it and you realize that time passed fast because you skipped classes the whole day. You walk home and you see homeless people roaming the streets. You get home and no one even bothers to ask you about your day.
—Erica Martinez, Irma Parra, Ricardo Pegro and Guadalupe Sanchez

Lack of hope

One of the ways that community problems affect the school is that parents earn minimum wage, $6.75 an hour. They want to give everything to their children and end up working eight to 12 hours each day or getting an extra job. They are so involved in their jobs that they do not even take the time to talk to their children. Teens take advantage of the situation and instead of helping their parents out, they ignore them and extract out of them as much as they can, like money for parties and clubs or they just hang around in the streets. Teens look for company and when there is nobody to talk to they get involved in drugs, gangs and sex. Many parents are pessimistic and do not expect much from their children. They expect girls will get pregnant and have three to five children and guys will drop out of school and find a low-paying job. Many parents don’t expect their children to attend college or continue their education after high school. So it all starts like that with parents who work too much and don’t have hope, and teenagers who take advantage of them.

Also, there are gangs, graffiti, racial tension and jealousy. Unskilled teachers also affect the students. Students feel ignored so they decide to hang out in any other place except their classrooms. Murders, police persecutions, domestic violence, rapes, assaults, accidents and fights in the streets also contribute to the violence and anger that exists in school. Instead of trying to be better, students manage to be worse each day.
—Alejandra Samaniego, Daria Macias and Evelyn Ramirez

My friends lost their way

I saw my friends drop out of school. Others are graduating in Juvenile Hall, some getting pregnant, others just getting lost in between. Most of the friends I had in middle school and high school are gone. The girls are living with their boyfriends with a baby or pregnant. I saw one of my old friends recently and he is still involved in gangs, he’s been in gangs since middle school and now he’s 20 years old. One other guy tried to change, but his past in gangs will haunt him. I feel fortunate to have reisisted the temptation of drugs and gangs.
—Daria Macias

Poverty leads to crime like robbery

One neighborhood issue is that there is a lot of poverty, which makes people rob other people for their stuff. One day when I was 14 years old, I was waiting for the bus so I could get home. Out of nowhere a gangster showed up and asked me where I was from. I told him I wasn’t in any gang. Then he took me to an alley. He had something in his hand, which I couldn’t tell if it was a gun or a knife. He told me to take off my necklace. Not only did he take my necklace, but he also took my CD player, change and my transfer.
—Jorge Chan

Too many people turn to gangs and drugs

Dealing with anger is often difficult and people can deal with it in two ways. They can hold it in or vent it in a physical manner. When I was younger I had a bit of anger pent up inside me. To release this extra negative energy and get a good workout, I took up boxing. Boxing gave me something to look forward to. It let me release whatever I had inside and put my energy into something positive. I have grown up since then. When I feel angry at a fellow student, I analyze the situation and see how I can get out of it or get through it without suffering the consequences. I always try my best to keep myself out of situations where I might feel frustrated or angry. If it cannot be avoided, I try to vent my frustration by other means. I write poetry and stories to keep myself occupied and release whatever feelings I may have.

Everyone does not respond the same way to anger as I do. My 20-year-old uncle has always kept his anger inside. He has never sought help for his emotional problems and is now an active gang member. He has a broken family and a broken life. I look at him and I see the future of others who have suffered the same fate because they never expressed their feelings or branched out to other things to find support and comfort. Where I use poetry to display my feelings, he uses drugs to temporarily get rid of his. He has never finished high school because he has been in and out of jail due to his activity within the gang. For him, I am afraid, it is too late. It saddens me to think that such a fate has befallen others and will happen to many other coming generations because they never had anyone tell them to let their anger out in a positive manner. You can deal with it in two ways, negative or positive. I just wish that others who are in need of help find it from a friend or family member rather than a gang or drugs.
—Author’s name withheld

Some blacks and Latinos don’t get along

A new majority

Historically at Jefferson, there were more blacks than Latinos. Now there are more Latinos than blacks. This was probably one of the reasons why the fights happened. Probably the blacks didn’t like that the Latinos were invading Jeff. We also think the fight happened because they were trying to see who was tougher. Another possible reason is that maybe the blacks were jealous that Latinos were dressing better than they were. We don’t say this because we are racist, it’s just that you always hear black people telling Latinos, "Why are you trying to dress like a black person?" There are certain brands of clothes that black people think only they should wear, like Rocawear and Fubu.
—Laura Diaz and Maricela Reynoso

In jail you learn to stick to your own race

When I was about 15 years old I was locked up for two weeks for some problems in school. While I was in there I had to be involved in many attacks against many blacks and some Hispanics who would kick it with blacks. Once I was ordered by one of the main fools that ran the Hispanics in jail to go and jump on a Latino because he came in with braids and would kick it around with the blacks. I could not refuse because then my own race and so-called homeboys would go after me. So I did what I had to do. Me and two others had to prove that we were like them or we would have faced the consequences.
—Author’s name withheld

The students were defending their culture

The students at Jefferson High School had a lot of reasons to fight, but one of them was pride. They were defending their culture. The African Americans and Latinos felt that one race was better than the other and had to do something to show it. Some of the black students get mad at Latinos when they talk in Spanish and they cannot understand anything, and sometimes they think that Latinos are saying bad things about them. The response of Latinos is that they are not going to stop speaking Spanish just because the African Americans don’t like it.

—Nataly Gutierrez, Edward Morales and Gabriela Penaloza