NAACP, Hispanic groups fight violence

Left to right, praying at the end of a press conference: Jose Dominguez, Edwin Vasquez, Yanderi Hernandez. Representatives from hispanic and African American communities held a press conference at CASA de Maryland regarding ideas to prevent violence between the two communities. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / June 2, 2014)

Baltimore police plan to deploy officers around city schools until the school year ends to ensure student safety amid recent racial tensions, while school officials joined civil rights leaders to urge students of different races to peacefully resolve differences.

The actions followed recent threats and violent attacks on Latino students as well as the Memorial Day robbery and murder of a 15-year-old Mexican student who had dropped out of high school to help his family.

Black and Hispanic leaders called for peace at a news conference Monday afternoon, before police deployed several officers to Federal Hill near Digital Harbor High School to deter groups of students from fighting in the streets.

"We demand and we ask for everyone to stop the violence going on in our city, especially in our schools," Missael Garcia, a board member of Casa de Maryland, a Latino advocacy group, said at a news conference Monday with members of the NAACP, National Urban League and other groups.

After-school program volunteers and directors at Casa de Maryland said assaults on two Hispanic high school students last week heightened fears that Latino youths were being targeted. They said only seven out of more than 100 Latino students showed up to Digital Harbor High School on Friday because they feared they would be attacked by black students.

Baltimore school officials said they plan to meet with Digital High students and their parents, including during a special meeting Tuesday night, to help curb tensions and violence.

"The Digital Harbor High School community, with support from the district, is working proactively with students, parents, police, and community partners to reinforce the expectation that students treat each other with respect and settle conflicts without resorting to fighting," said Tisha Edwards, the city schools' interim chief executive officer.

As classes let out Monday at Digital Harbor High, police converged on the surrounding neighborhood. Four officers stood at the Cross Street Market, while squad cars were posted on William Street and Riverside Avenue and near Key Highway. Another cluster of police cars were parked in front of the school's main entrance, and a police helicopter flew overhead.

Other officers drove alongside students, at one point using a loudspeaker to tell them to keep moving. No skirmishes broke out, authorities said.

Hispanic leaders say tensions increased May 26 when Oscar Torres, 15, was shot to death in the Union Square neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore at about 1 a.m. An older Hispanic friend of Torres was wounded in the incident, and the perpetrator remains at large, police said.

Police said the suspect is a black man who was seen riding in the car stolen after the men were shot, and who later crashed into another vehicle as he fled police, killing a 12-year-old.

Police believe the fatal shooting happened during a robbery and wasn't racially motivated. But Torres' death began to loom in the psyche of Hispanic students, especially as other events unfolded, Casa officials said.

On Wednesday, a student was knocked unconscious on Baltimore Street near Gay Street in an incident Baltimore police said school police are investigating. The next day, a 17-year-old Digital Harbor High School student who is Greek was hospitalized after his face was cut by part of a belt near Baltimore and South streets.

Two juveniles were arrested in the attack with the belt, Baltimore police spokeswoman Detective Sgt. Sarah Connolly said. She did not answer a question about whether the incident was racially motivated.

Although Casa officials and Latino students said Monday that African-Americans were responsible, police did not release the race of the suspects in either incident. School district officials didn't respond to inquiries about the assaults.

On Facebook, anonymous videos of Latinos being beaten along with general threats toward Hispanic students began to surface, said Yanderi Hernandez, a city high school student who participates in Casa programs. She and Casa officials said they saw some of the threats.

"They have been saying they're going to try and kill us and do this and that to boys," said Hernandez.

Latino students at Casa after-school programs were so upset by the attacks that the organization's lead organizer, Elizabeth Alex, invited police to speak to rebut rumors about the number of teens assaulted and help ease concerns.

"The kids were off the hook," Alex said. "They were angry, they were yelling, they were scared."

Jose Dominguez, a Digital Harbor senior, said "nothing was normal" and that it felt as though Hispanic students were being ignored and isolated by other students.

"You could feel it in the environment," he said. "That negative feeling that something bad was going on."

Tensions also are high at Patterson Park High School, which has a large Latino student population, and Friendship Academy of Math, Science and Technology, Casa officials said.

Other racially tinged incidents have happened in the city in recent years. Last summer, a Hispanic man was beaten by a group of black teens near Patterson Park. A witness told The Baltimore Sun and a police dispatcher that one of the attackers said the man was targeted "because he's Mexican."

Over less than two months in 2010, five Latinos were shot or beaten to death. In one case, police said a 51-year-old Honduran man was attacked by a mentally troubled man who said he didn't like "Mexicans."

The attacks became a flash point for the city, exposing some of Baltimore's underlying racial fissures. Latino leaders worried that Latinos who are in the country without proper documentation didn't report crimes for fear they would be questioned about their immigration status.

In 2012, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued an executive order prohibiting Baltimore employees, including police, from inquiring about immigration status in the course of city business. She said she hoped the order would encourage more Hispanic immigrants to move to Baltimore and boost the city's tax base and population.

On Monday, Rawlings-Blake voiced her disappointment about recent events.

"There is simply no place in our city for violence, especially not in our schools — where we send our children to learn and grow," she said in a statement. "As the mother of a young child, it absolutely breaks my heart to hear of any incident that involves youth as either the victim or perpetrator of crime.

"Making Baltimore a safer city is my administration's top priority and I remain committed to doing all I can to make sure our youth have the necessary resources to rise above senseless violence."

On Monday, Casa and other organizations launched a social media "onebmore" hashtag campaign to raise awareness. "Stop Hatin' No Mas! It's time to come together as #onebmore to support our youth & provide a safe space to learn & thrive!" one participating group tweeted.

Members of civil rights organizations said they plan to recruit black youths across the city, teach them about cultural differences and send them to work with Latino groups on various projects and to help foster an environment of tolerance and understanding.

"If they're different from you, you need not hate," Baltimore NAACP branch president Tessa Hill-Aston said.

The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said he would like African- American and Latino leaders to begin meeting regularly during "Black and Brown" dinners to address social issues together — and set an example for young people.

As the news conference closed on Monday, black and Hispanic leaders all linked hands during a prayer as a show of solidarity.

"It's a sad state we are in," said J. Howard Henderson of the Greater Baltimore Urban League. "We should not have students of any race afraid to attend Baltimore City schools."

Baltimore Sun reporters Erica L. Green and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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