- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — When the fights between Texas and Louisiana students worsened at White Middle School, its remedy was a field trip to a nearby strip mall for a lesson in peace and understanding.

Two blocks from campus in a former pizza parlor, the students were brought together to brainstorm ideas, practice tolerance and freely mingle at a workshop that Principal Rick Canales hoped would ease tensions that have troubled the school since 32 Hurricane Katrina refugees arrived in September.

“What our school needed was a little more kindness,” Mr. Canales said as he watched students fasten headbands marked with words such as “bully” and “jock” during an exercise to tackle stereotypes.

Fights between displaced students and their new classmates have frustrated school districts in Texas and other states with large populations of Katrina refugees.

In Houston, which absorbed about 6,000 student refugees, district officials have reported at least a dozen violent incidents. The district resumed classes after the Christmas break with a 10 percent increase in campus security.

The worst incident occurred at Westbury High School in Houston in December, when 15 refugees and 12 local students were arrested during a near-riot in the lunchroom.

At Houston’s Jones High School, three were hospitalized and five were arrested in September after a soda tossed near a group of refugees started a fight involving at least 20 students. In Dallas, students at Lincoln High School said several fights broke out during a November power outage.

Turf battles, culture clashes and posturing provoke most incidents. Jealous boys are ruffled by refugees who are talking to local girls. Different music styles have created wedges.

Westbury freshman Janet Granados said refugees antagonize Houston students by writing graffiti in textbooks and bathrooms. In San Antonio, New Orleans refugee Terrell Smith, 14, said he thinks classmates unfairly pegged him as a vagabond outsider from the start.

“The core of the problems was territory,” Westbury Principal Eric Coleman said. “When you’re going to someone else’s territory and you’re dealing with someone who’s different, that have different cultures, different backgrounds, there is always going to be an adjustment or a transitional period. That’s all this was. It’s still going to take time.”

Houston, which received more Louisiana students than any other district in the country, hired the equivalent of 18 additional full-time officers to patrol its most volatile campuses. The district also charged 20 administrators to flood campuses with adult presence when needed.

“Stuff doesn’t happen if we’re walking,” said George August, principal of Jack Yates High School.

Houston also rearranged its counseling staff. At Yates, counselors formerly packed in one central office now occupy rooms on all three floors to increase visibility and access.

Westbury senior Gilbert Dawsey, who noted that school ended last week with another altercation, said he thinks some fights are unavoidable.

“I don’t know what the school can do,” he said. “Sometimes, you just can’t stop how kids feel.”

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