Digital Harbor unlikely school for racial tensions, educators say

Tension between Latino and black students escalated over past week, drawing police presence

  • A Baltimore School Police officer observes the scene as school lets out.
A Baltimore School Police officer observes the scene as school… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
June 04, 2014|By Liz Bowie and Colin Campbell, The Baltimore Sun

It was just a moment of poor teenage judgment: One student threw a marker across a classroom at Digital Harbor High, sparking an argument between a Latino student and a black student. Since they couldn't fight in class, they agreed to meet after school on Federal Hill.

The fight was a nasty one, and the Latino boy was sent to the hospital with a concussion. Then word spread, and though school leaders believe the incident wasn't about race, it was impressions that mattered last week.

So the fight came to symbolize the built-up tension between Latinos and African-Americans that has simmered for years across Baltimore, growing worse as the city sees a steady influx of immigrants into its schools and neighborhoods. A small moment in the classroom became the flash point for a week of sporadic violence, fueled by threats and counter-threats on social media.

Angelo Solera, executive director of the Latino Providers Network, said the community and several other high schools face systemic, unaddressed racial issues. Latino students and their parents are often afraid to report attacks, he said, because they believe the perpetrators won't be disciplined and they will become targets.

"The issue of Latinos being attacked by African-Americans is nothing new in the community," he said.

But Katrina Brooks, community relations and youth coordinator for the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she believes the problem is the result of a small group of students.

"What they are doing at the time rings louder than what the good students are doing," she said.

Digital Harbor High School was an unlikely place for such tension to explode, teachers say. One of the most diverse high schools in the city, with white, black and Latino students, teachers believe most students are tolerant of differences, accepting enough, in fact, to elect a transgender prom queen this spring. A spot in the school is one of the most sought-after in the city, and parents believe their children will be safe in its quiet halls.

"This incident is not who we are," said teacher Nikole Divito. "We accept diversity here."

Principal Brian Eyer swept into action last week. After the first fight on Federal Hill, he alerted teachers and police to be at bus stops and pathways that students travel to buses. But on Thursday, police said, a Digital High student who was Latino was chased down and cut on the face with a belt buckle in downtown Baltimore.

The next morning, Eyer pulled students from every grade, one after another, into the auditorium and talked to them about how the words they put on social media were not just seen by their friends but by those around the nation. He had the star athletes stand up and the students applauded them. Then all the honor roll students received applause.

"I told them, 'All the great, amazing things that you all are doing are being overshadowed by the incidents that happened in the community,'" he said.

He and teachers made a plan to talk about race and differences in their classrooms. Students created PowerPoint presentations to counter the racism and violence.

On Monday, Eyer and his staff met with Latino parents, listening to their concerns. Eyer said he learned a lot in the discussion and had not understood the depth of their apprehension previously.

Volunteers from Casa Maryland talked to students Tuesday during lunch periods about cultural differences and asked students to make a pledge of nonviolence.

But even as staff and students worked toward peace and greater cultural awareness, there continued to be a heavy police presence, including the city police commissioner, at the school during dismissal Wednesday.

Rumors swirled Wednesday that another fight was going to break out after school, but Eyer said the impetus had nothing to do with race but a dispute between two girls arguing about a boy. No fights broke out. At dismissal, a group of Latino students, who were afraid to give their names, said they had decided to walk in groups for protection.

Some students say they believe the issue has been blown out of proportion. Asia Cole, an African-American who graduated on Sunday, said she has close Latino friends.

"When I was at Digital, everyone was close and cool," she said, adding that she never felt threatened in any way.

Students do segregate in the cafeteria and classroom by race, however, she said. "Unless the teacher tells where you are sitting, you are sitting next to people who look like you," she said.

Malik Habeebullah, a 15-year-old freshman who is black, said the violence and the racial tension were blown out of proportion, especially on social media.

"I think it was pumped up more than it was," Habeebullah said.

He said the cafeteria has been calm since the attacks, which he said weren't necessarily racially motivated: "People just wanted to fight that day."

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