February 26, 1999

Racial Tensions Flare in L.A. Area's Changing Neighborhoods

By Amanda Covarrubias

LOS ANGELES - Early this month, a white principal at a mostly Hispanic elementary school was beaten up outside by two men who told him: ``We don't want you here anymore, principal. Do you understand that, white principal?''

In January, another Los Angeles-area school dropped its observance of both Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo after Hispanics complained they were getting only one day of attention compared with a whole month for blacks.

The two racial flare-ups illustrate the challenges faced by Los Angeles-area schools as urban neighborhoods are transformed by new ethnic groups.

``Our communities are chang-ing quickly,'' said Lee Wal-lach, executive director of Days of Dialogue, a nonprofit conflict resolution group that led mediation talks after the attack on the principal. ``L.A. is such a melting pot and so transient and these communities are changing, really monthly. When that happens and no one's talking to each other, it creates a lot of hostility.''

Norman Bernstein, the 65-year-old principal at Burton Street Elementary, was beat-en on Feb. 1 in an attack police are investigating as a hate crime. He told police that at least one of the assailants was Hispanic. No arrests have been made.

The attack on the 40-year district veteran led to angry words among teachers, parents and administrators, who blame each other for creating a volatile atmosphere at the 750-student school, which is 90 percent Hispanic.

Burton Street Elementary is in Los Angeles' Panorama City section, in the San Fer-nando Valley. The neighborhood had a more even balance of whites and Hispanics back in the 1980s.

Some parents had been pushing for Bernstein's replacement for the past year by a Spanish-speaking principal. They complained he was insensitive to their concerns over Proposition 227, the state law banning bilingual education. They also accused him of trying to thwart their efforts to obtain waivers allowing their children to remain in bilingual classes.

``We just want justice for our kids,'' parent Lorena Aguilar said. ``There are students who tell their parents they don't want to come to school. What will happen when they get to junior high or high school?''

Bernstein has not gone back to work since the attack and has not returned calls for comment.

The question of whether predominantly ethnic schools should have principals and administrators who speak the same language is at the heart of much of the tension in the 600,000-student Los Angeles district.

District leaders, as well as Mayor Richard Riordan, strongly believe administrators should be chosen on the basis of ability, not cultural background.

Some school board members disagree, siding with a growing number of ethnic parents who feel their children are best served by administrators of the same back-ground.

Riordan has said such talk only serves to further divide the city. When School Board President Victoria Castro suggested Burton Street parents had a right to want a Spanish-speaking principal, Riordan responded angrily by saying Mrs. Castro should ``wash her mouth out with soap.''

Just outside the city, Ingle-wood High School dropped both Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo this year for fear of the violence and student walkouts that have occurred during the past several years.

Inglewood High was once overwhelmingly black, but in a transformation that began in the late 1980s, it is now nearly 60 percent Hispanic.

Last May, Inglewood High was forced to close for a day after a riot broke out and dozens of police were called in. A task force found that the fight began, in part, because Hispanic students were angry that blacks got a whole month to celebrate their heritage. Cinco de Mayo marks a May 5, 1862, victory in Mexico's battle for independence.

Principal Lowell Winston has told teachers instead to follow a ``multicultural education approach'' throughout the school year and ``talk about all cultures and contributions all the time.''

``You can't continue to do things the way they were done in the past,'' he said. ``This school has had racial problems that are unique. The old ways didn't work.''

Back in the Los Angeles school district, three black teachers and a 13-year-old black former student at South Gate Middle School near Watts have filed a lawsuit alleging the district failed to halt discrimination against them at the school, which is more than 98 percent Hispanic vs. 63 percent back in 1978.

At Burton Street Elementary, Mia Regalado doubts her 9-year-old son Steven will learn how to read anytime soon, not with educators and parents busy trying to ease racial tensions.

Said Ms. Regalado, whose son is repeating second grade because of his inability to read: ``I'm not so much concerned about race as I am about a teacher's ability to teach.''

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