Digital Harbor unlikely school for racial tensions, educators say

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 Greek 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."

Gladys Gonzalez, 16, said the Latino students have been sticking together in groups because they're afraid of being jumped. She said a lot of them stayed home from school Friday after threats against them circulated on Facebook.


The racial tension extends to more than just Digital. Jonathan Perez, a Latino senior at City College, said he was the victim of a recent cafeteria fight there.

While the 18-year-old said violence is rare at City College, he said it does happen: "It's always a group of people that think they're tougher than everybody else."

A group of black students knocked out Perez's Dominican friend, he said, and then restrained and punched Perez when he tried to come to his aid. He said he approached two of his attackers after the fight and asked why they had done it. They had no explanation.

"One of them was crying in front of me and my friend," said Perez, who added that he accepted the apology they offered.

"I'm sad that we're in 2014, and we have kids that are fighting and having violent interaction over racial bias, and especially when you think about how far we have come," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told reporters Wednesday morning. "It's disheartening."

But the mayor said she was pleased that the school, collaborating with other agencies, is "confronting the problem head-on and not trying to sugarcoat it and call it something that it is not. There is racial discord and they are dealing with it, and I am hoping that it is going to be addressed."


Solera said he believes the meetings in the school are not enough. Officials are "just putting a Band-Aid on the larger problem."

Eyer said his students are being jumped when they leave the school, and sometimes by students who come from other areas of the city. "We don't think it is just Latinos that are being picked on," he said.

Interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Anabel Dominguez, the mother of a Latino student, said she is worried about the security of her son, a Digital student, but she believes the staff are trying to come up with a solution.

Shawnette Williams, a Spanish teacher and ninth-grade disciplinarian at Digital, said African-Americans as well as Latinos have been victims, and that some have had cellphones stolen as they walk away from the school.

"In my mind, there has to be something more that is fueling this," she said.


Casa Maryland has attempted to bring African-American and Latino students together in after-school activities involving art projects.

"At the community level, there has been a tremendous amount of work to bridge the gap between the two cultures," said Brooks.

In part, she said, the problems lie in deep-seated suspicions among adults.

"Families are so stressed and just surviving ... it is easy to see people as against you," she said. "They have come to take jobs, they have come to take over your neighborhood. It is hard to believe they are just another family and that they are just trying to survive, and we are trying to do the same thing."

In fact, she said, the two communities could find strength if they collaborated, something she hopes the next generation will learn.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.


Digital Harbor High

•An innovative technology-focused high school that serves grades nine-12

•Enrolls about 1,400 students

•The school, originally Southern High School, was renamed Digital Harbor High School in 2002 when Southern's building at 1100 Covington St. was renovated.


Source: Digital High website