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Published: Thursday, September 28, 2000
By Scott Travis And Mel Melendez Staff Writers
Racial tensions in Palm Beach County schools have prompted some parents and community leaders to band together to try to find ways to stop violence and bigotry.
A fight two weeks ago between a Haitian-American and an African-American student at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton spurred a Delray Beach group to release a proclamation Wednesday condemning racism, bigotry and hate crimes.
In Belle Glade, some community residents and experts met Wednesday to discuss ways to prevent racial tensions at West Tech Community Center, a vocational high school, from reaching a boiling point.
School District Police Chief Jim Kelly said a group of white students who live in the Loxahatchee and Royal Palm Beach areas have been driving to schools with Confederate flags waving on their cars and have made comments that could create an atmosphere of racial strife.
Ilene Allgood, education director for the Anti-Defamation League in West Palm Beach, said some students have threatened black faculty, administrators and workers at the Belle Glade school. A hangman's noose was left by the principal's office and racist emblems have been scrawled on school property, she said.
"Teachers are afraid and concerned, but they really want to help these kids," Allgood said.
The Delray Beach coalition that issued the proclamation includes members representing the city of Delray Beach, a variety of churches and Haitian-American, African-American and other community groups. Many have been involved in a series of community study circles held this year to discuss issues that concern city residents.
Alberta McCarthy, a Delray Beach city commissioner, said the coalition will look to hold educational forums for children and adults on anger management and dealing with prejudices.
Coalition members may go to individual neighborhoods, or even bus stops, to try to resolve problems. Another idea may be to start a hotline for children who are facing troubles and need someone to talk to.
The fight that concerned the group happened Sept. 14, just as students were getting off the bus at Spanish River. Later that day, the African-American students involved cruised by the Haitian student's Delray Beach home and were heard saying they "did not like Haitians," according to a report from the Delray Beach Police Department.
The Haitian student suffered a broken nose. The African-American student will likely face charges of aggravated battery, but he has not been arrested yet, Kelly said.
A report from the Delray Beach police said the Spanish River fight may be a hate crime, although Kelly said school police have not classified it as that right now.
Still, many Delray Beach leaders said the problem proves a need to address tensions, not only between African-Americans and Haitian-Americans, but between all people.
"This incident is telling us that we as Haitian and African-American leaders haven't done our work," said the Rev. Roland Desormeaux, who is Haitian and leads Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church.
The Rev. William Stokes, pastor of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, said he hopes the Spanish River fight will galvanize the community into action.
"I hope people will speak out and really be bold about calling for people to confront the evils of racism and hatred in all of its forms," Stokes said.
The declaration states that Delray Beach residents repudiate hatred and bigotry of all forms, whether based on race, gender, ethnic or cultural background, religion or sexual orientation. Hate crimes will not be tolerated, the resolution states.
The residents are calling on adults to recognize their own prejudices and not to pass them on to their children. They want children to reject hatred passed on by prior generations.
Finally, the residents want political, civic, academic, religious and other leaders to start holding meetings and having discussions about racism and bigotry.
Other schools are also attempting to foster positive student relations by reaching out to community leaders and experts on hate crimes to learn how to cope with diversity-related tensions.
Earlier this year, Palm Beach Gardens High School officials brought in Joseph Bernadel, president of the National Haitian Coalition, to serve as a mediator between brawling African-American and Haitian-American students.
Bernadel described the tension between Haitian-American and African-American students in South Florida public schools as "boiling" and "on the rise."
Animosity stemming from cultural differences can manifest itself among students of all ethnic backgrounds, said Allgood, of the Anti-Defamation League.
"This area is increasingly diverse," said Allgood, who offers anti-bias training for Palm Beach County teachers. "So parents have to teach kids at a young age that diversity enriches all our lives and that everyone can get along."
On Wednesday, Allgood attended a private meeting of about 40 officials designed to help address problems between black and white students at the West Tech Education Center in Belle Glade.
Allgood met with school administrators -- including the vocational school's principal, Cynthia Smith -- Renalda Mack, head of the State Attorney's Office's civil rights unit; a hate crimes specialist from the Anti-Defamation League's Miami office; a school district representative; and school police.
"This is the first meeting, a sort of fact-finding meeting," Allgood said before the meeting. "Due to its sensitive nature, the school decided to keep it private."
Phone calls to Smith were not returned Wednesday.
Cultural differences, including language and dress, often lead to disagreements among students who look similar but have different life experiences, Allgood said.
"That's why adults have to be proactive about not making generalizations, because children pick that up and that leads to stereotyping others at school," Allgood said. "Before you know, that name-calling starts and that leads to violence."
Scott Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6637. Mel Melendez can be reached at email@example.com or 561-243-6538.
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