Baltimore police deployed extra officers around Digital Harbor High School in Federal Hill and a handful of other schools this week to ensure students' safety in the wake of recent threats and violent attacks against Latino students. The beefed-up security presence appears to have calmed a situation that was threatening to get out of hand after all but seven of the Digital Harbor's more than 100 Latino students stayed home last Friday because they feared being attacked by black students on the streets near the school. The officers will remain in the area to keep a lid on things until school lets out later this month, but obviously that's not a long-term solution to the simmering racial and ethnic tensions this episode has revealed.
Fortunately, the real work of healing those divisions has already begun, and it is being done by school staff and administrators in cooperation with local neighborhood and community group leaders and organizations such as Casa de Maryland and the Baltimore City chapter of the NAACP. They have been meeting with parents all week to reassure them that their children will be protected and to encourage a dialogue among students aimed at fostering greater intergroup cooperation and understanding. That's the only path likely to lead toward a lasting resolution of the problem. It's also what the majority of an admittedly unscientific sampling of students interviewed outside the school this week said they want to see happen.
It's unclear what sparked the recent escalation of tensions at the school, which has a total enrollment of about 1,400 students. Police say it may be related to the robbery and killing of a 15-year-old Mexican youngster, Oscar Torres, near Union Square in Southwest Baltimore on Memorial Day, and to two other attacks on Latino youngsters walking near Baltimore Street in the following days. Those incidents, along with a series of threatening Internet postings that appeared recently on social media sites suggesting Latinos were being targeted, left many of the school's Spanish-speaking students fearing for their safety.
Police say it remains unclear whether the original assaults were racially motivated attacks or random street crimes. Officials at Digital Harbor who have spent the last few days of trying to get to the bottom of the unrest now believe it may have started after a student threw a pen at a classmate during school hours and the victim challenged the perpetrator to fight after class. The two — one black, one Latino — decided to bring their friends as backup and the situation spiraled into what at least looked like a racial confrontation.
Whatever the case, there's no doubt school and community leaders have their work cut out for them. This is not the first time ethnic groups have bumped up against each other uncomfortably in an American high school, but each time it happens it's a wake-up call regarding the need for communities to put in the hard work necessary to bring people together in ways that lead to positive outcomes. We hope the actual level of ill will along racial and ethnic lines among students at Digital ultimately turns out to be not nearly as great as either group fears.
But the school's staff is right not to leave that to chance. In addition to this week's meetings, they are also expanding partnerships with other organizations in the community, creating sensitivity training and cultural literacy programs for students and staff that will become a regular part of the orientation process for incoming ninth-graders, and enlisting students to take the lead role in creating an anti-violence campaign and conflict resolution initiative. The school is also increasing the size of its staff for English as a second language learners and reaching out to more Latino families through its parent involvement group.
In cases such as this it's often the perception rather than the reality of conflict that drives the public's reaction. Baltimore needs to be seen as welcoming to all newcomers regardless of race or ethnicity as it seeks to grow its population by 10,000 families over the next decade and to attract new businesses and investment to the city. Magnet high schools like Digital Harbor, which specializes in information technology, need to embrace their diversity and celebrate it not only because it mirrors the larger world they live in but because that's the only way they and their students can ever reach their full potential.
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