San Diego A Bell Junior High School student reports to his parents that there has been a riot at school. He further relates that he was jumped, kicked, and beaten by 20 students. The child is African American; his attackers were Asian.
Many phone calls later, on Thursday, March 20, Mrs. Sharlene Houston, her husband Frank, and their two sons crowd into a small conference room on campus. The school is in Paradise Hills, a couple of blocks south of Highway 54, at 620 South Briarwood Road. At the head of the table is a balding, red-faced man in his mid-40s. He's dressed in a starched white shirt and slacks. "I'm Norm Kellner, principal. This is my fourth year." On his right: "Pat Daugherty from the San Diego Reader."
Moving along... "I'm Sharlene Houston, and I'm concerned about what's going on here at Bell Junior High regarding my sons and the riot that happened on Thursday."
Next to Mrs. Houston are her two sons followed by her husband. "I'm Frank Houston. I'm also interested to find out what's exactly going on and get to the bottom of this today."
At the far end of the table is a portly man attired in a blue suit and tie. "My name is Ray Smith. I am the executive director of Triple Crown, a community-based agency that works directly with high-risk youth. We work in the Skyline area quite a bit as it relates to the various different gangs. We are the ones that set the meeting with Mr. Kellner in order to see if there is something we can do to mitigate the situation." On Smith's right is an Asian man wearing a tan sports shirt. "My name is Mr. Delute. I am the vice principal who's been working with this particular incident."
Turning to the far corner, "My name is Lou Lake from Triple Crown. I'm assisting Ray." Next, "Good morning. My name is Les Pierres Streater, and I'm the managing editor of the African American Newslink newspaper."
Continuing on... "My name is Louis Petway. I am with the San Diego Million Man March organizing committee. I'm here in support of the Houston family."
Finally, "Kasimu Harley. I'm a pupil advocate at Bell Junior High."
Ray's assistant, Lou Lake, opens. "May I add one thing, please? I would like to say on behalf of Ray that we are here as operatives of information - we're trying to find information. We don't want to be taking sides with anyone at this point. We want to find out what's the true nature of what's going on and hopefully, we can come to some solutions."
Ray adds, "To give you a little bit more information, Triple Crown has a contract from the City of San Diego to put out what we call 'Night Counselors.' They are on the streets from 4:00 to midnight. The reason why I said that is that if there's some way that we could be a part of helping with after-school problems - we've got anywhere between eight and ten counselors that go on the streets every day - maybe we come in early at two o'clock and help out."
Norm, the principal: "Well, I think the first thing we have to do, around the table here, is try to assess the nature of the problem, and then we can discuss how we can utilize your services, which I have to admit sound pretty good."
Sharlene Houston: "Thursday, at least 20 to 25 Asians jumped on a young black kid. My son stepped in, from my understanding, to try and stop the fight. At least 10 to 15 kids jumped him. Mr. Delute called and said that my kids were injured, so I came down here. "My sons were injured. Mr. Delute also called another child's father for the same reason. We sat here, maybe 30, 35, maybe 40 minutes. We thought the kids had already seen the nurse. Well, they had not seen the nurse. One child's hand was swollen up and he was hit in the head.
"That was on Thursday. I asked Mr. Delute, 'Well, why don't we all go into a room and we can all talk about it together?' Mr. Delute decided that he wanted to put me in one room and the other child's father in another room. I said, 'Well, that wouldn't be right. If we can just all get together and sit down and talk about this, you know, we can eliminate it.' The kids still hadn't seen the nurse yet.
"Mr. Delute asked me to take the boys home. I decided no, because the children need their education, and I'm not gonna take them home because of this incident. Mr. Delute said, 'There might be some trouble afterwards.' So I did not bring them to school on Friday. Friday, there was another incident. Maybe you all swept that under the carpet again, but from my understanding, there was another fight - Mexicans against the Asians. And yesterday, from my understanding, there was another young kid who was thrown in the bushes and cut." Mrs. Houston looks to her son. "Is that right?" Her eldest child answers, "He got cut up."
Mrs. Houston explains, "My son works in the nurse's office, so he was cut up, from my understanding."
Norm, the principal: "He was cut when he was thrown into the bush. I mean, the implication is that he was cut by a weapon, and I don't know anything about any weapon."
Mrs. Houston firmly asks her boy, "Was that cut made by a weapon?"
"He was cut by a weapon."
Norm: "Did you see the weapon?"
The kid declares, "When they were fighting he said so. The bushes that he was talking about were way over there, and the officer was talking about it. Not the police, but the one that works on campus. He saw who was thrown into the bushes, and he was cut up on the arm, chest - like, stabbed right in the stomach somewhere."
Norm: "The investigating officers found no evidence of a weapon. He said that the cut on the stomach was caused by his belt buckle."
Frank Houston leans in. "From my understanding a teacher here labeled my son as a gang member or something like that. I'm not sure. That's why I'm asking you and bringing it to your attention. And I want this to be known, my kids don't participate in gangs, and I know because I used to work for Triple Crown, and I know every status there is. My children are Christian children, and I don't appreciate them being labeled. I hate to put it like this, but that's exactly what it seems like, because it seems like African Americans are more likely to be labeled as gang members."
Ray from Triple Crown hurries onto the playing field. "Let's try to take the emotion out of this." He looks down the table at the Houston child. "Do you know the names of the people that were involved in any of the incidents?"
Harley, a youngish man, I'd say late 20s, checks in. "One of the things - let me just say, I'm a pupil advocate here working with African American students as well as other students. One of the things before you give out kids' names - that is a violation of their rights, okay? So, I'm just gonna say that's something that...."
Ray: "All I'm trying to do here is get someone who's on the other side of the story." "Okay, we can get to that. And I'm not sure where all of you are in this situation, but I think one of the things that we really need to get to is, what are the actual facts." Mrs. Houston continues, "After I left, Mr. Delute pulled my kids out and talked to them. They were not supposed to be questioned without me. They questioned my children behind my back. They went and got a police officer and questioned the children behind my back, which was wrong, you see?
"If other parents would have known that this meeting was going on, I'm pretty sure that they would have been here, but you laughed - you laughed - all of you have laughed, sweeping this under the carpet. When somebody gets killed, then there will be action. That's the reason we called the meeting, for everybody's sake, not for just blacks or greens or purples. You see what I'm saying?"
Advocate Harley: "And I want you to know that I hear all of that, and I appreciate the urgency of this. I just want to go on record as saying I think that in terms of the situation as it was stated that we need to be careful of how we begin to define the situation. I'm not sure that it was more than what it was in terms of a conflict, okay. "That's one piece. The other piece is that given the campuses that I interface with, I have to go on record as saying that myself as well as our school police officers, we do proactive work to make sure that situations where we have the violence, where we have a person that gets killed and things like that, so I guess what I'd like to see us come to are what are some steps we can take to make sure that..."
A loud male voice interrupts. "Just a moment. I'd like to ask the vice principal if he was here at the time of the incident last week."
Mr. Delute: "Yes, I was."
"I would like to hear from you precisely what occurred last week and precisely what occurred on Monday."
"Okay. The school's ethnic breakdown is approximately 40 percent Filipino/Asian, 20 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent Caucasian. On this occasion there were two groups of students, specifically the Filipino and African American students. I'm not sure about the details on one of the days that was mentioned.
"Anyway, after school kids were walking down the ramp to McDonald's, and kids normally walk together with their group of friends. In this particular instance, these two groups happened to meet each other, okay? Name callings were started. Students state that this has been ongoing. When they say ongoing, it's, like, someone would stare at someone, and they would stare back, a comment would be made, kinda under the breath. Somebody doesn't like it. It goes on. It escalates. So that's what happened Wednesday at the school.
"Thursday morning, umm, before school, Asian kids were walking to campus and walked by some African American students. Statements were made again. They don't like the way they were staring at each other, so they crowd against each other. A teacher comes by, tells them to break it up, they go to their classes.
"Kids all went to first period, okay? They were dispersed, okay? Now, the next statements I'm gonna give are the exact details the students gave me. The statements are from the two persons that were involved and have been suspended. I'm not gonna give their names, but let me explain what happened.
"One student walks towards school with his friends. It's approximately 8:30 Thursday morning. There's a lot of Filipino students that hang around that particular area, sit in that area, because some of them come in, and kids congregate there, and then they leave. "So, what happens? One student says to a Filipino student, 'There goes that _ ,' and he uses an expletive and then says the kid's name. These kids have had problems regarding each other, okay? The statement was made, 'Shut up, fatso.' Now the kids are facing off with each other, okay? At that point somebody pushes the other boy. An African American student pushes an Asian student. At that point, a fight breaks out between the two of them. All right?
"At that point, students crowd around because a fight has occurred. Security sees it, and they're ready, but the kid is already surrounded, and somebody decides that they want to jump in. Another statement I have is, 'Somebody wants to break up the fight.' So, you have two different factions there. And at that point we're going through there to separate, and some of the friends of either side are trying to separate other people, and they get hit in the process. And somebody jumps in - they want to get their hits in."
Sharlene Houston: "How many Asians were there? How many blacks?"
Delute: "That I cannot state. Because I was not there. When I come in a scene like that, my first goal is to find out who is hitting who, 'cause I want to find if somebody is on the ground, so I can protect them. One student was pulled off. A teacher had him. I looked at him. I saw that the teacher had him, and I saw a student on the ground. My focus was on that student, and if anybody was hitting him, okay? I looked around. There were students being pulled apart at that time, dispersing. There were three teachers as security. They start moving back. At that point, I saw the student on the ground. I looked if there was somebody kicking or hitting him. I did observe a student doing that."
A male voice cuts in. "There were Asian and African Americans in the fight. What was the proportion of each?"
Delute: "I saw balanced numbers."
From the far end of the table: "Let's find out what happened."
Mrs. Houston to the vice principal: "Were you there?"
Lou of Triple Crown: "Let's take the emotion out of it."
Mrs. Houston: "Let him finish. Let him finish."
Harley: "Wait a minute. Wait. You talk about getting emotion out of it, but you let people make different kind of statements, and when he tries to say something..." Lou: "That's why we're letting him get back to what he was saying."
Harley: "Well, all right. I'll respect that if you allow him to say what he's gonna say, and you know, I'll just chill, but I'm not gonna sit here and let people just go off on these tangents and not solve a thing."
Lou: "That's personalizing the situation."
Harley: "No. That's not personalizing. I'm just engaging you on what you are saying. Let the man talk, that's all."
Mrs. Houston: "Let's just calm down and let each other talk like we said we're gonna do. Now, whoever was next, please go."
Mr. Delute: "So, at that point we start taking students to the office. Specific students that were brought in were the student that was on the ground, okay? Another student that was injured. At that point, I brought them in. Then the question became, like, 'Who was involved?' Initially, as soon as they were identified and brought to the office - the student on the ground, an Asian student, another student who I saw kicking a student. The last kid was brought to the office, but he did not come directly because he got away, but we found him and brought him back to the office. At that point, I started questioning the students, 'What happened?' Okay?"
Mr. Delute continues at length, relating the steps he took: ordering students to the office, investigating the affair, taking statements, calling parents, and at Mrs. Houston's request, calling the San Diego Police Department. Two African American students and one Filipino student were suspended. Delute explains. "So what happens is, like, I'm looking at statements of the students. It's very difficult to sort out what's going on. Students state, 'Yes, I was there.' Students state, 'I wasn't there.' 'He hit me.' 'No, I didn't hit you.' So it's very difficult to do so. All right?"
Mr. Houston: "My question is, my son didn't punch. I question why he was suspended. He was hit in the back of his head, and then turned around to defend himself. He got suspended. My sons did not actually fight, but they were both suspended."
Delute: "Okay, I can get to that, but let me finish what's going on here. I can explain why the suspension took place. Let me answer the next question, 'What happened that whole day?' Okay. So, we have first and second lunch at this school and what we do..." As of press time, Mrs. Houston reports that she has contacted the offices of Councilman George Stevens and Mayor Susan Golding. She believes a meeting between Filipino and African American parents will be held at Bell Junior High this week.