District tries to ease tensions between students

Speaking before more than 50 fellow students on Jan. 24 at Edison High School, junior David Escalante painted an evocative and troubling picture of the tense relations between Latino and black students at the south Stockton campus.

"It's kind of like a prison yard here: Hispanics here, African-Americans in the hallways only, not a lot of mixed ethnic groups here," the 16-year-old Escalante said. "There's not enough communication between the races, and it causes problems. There are a lot of fights at this school over such ridiculous reasons."

A fight might be over a $5 debt. It might be over a rumor. Earlier this school year, Principal Brian Biedermann said, a fight on ethnic lines erupted over a lone purple grape. One student threw the grape. Another was hit by it.

The campus climates at Edison and at Chávez High were a central topic at the schools last week. At the request of Stockton Unified, a representative from the United States Department of Justice's Community Relations Service led daylong gatherings at each school aimed at addressing a full range of student concerns.

Administrators identified student leaders from a spectrum of each school's demographics. The students were arranged in small groups to discuss their issues and to brainstorm. Adult facilitators from the Stockton area were assigned to each group to keep the discussions focused and productive.

Similar sessions are set for February at Franklin and Stagg high schools. Stockton Unified officials are hoping the student-centered conflict-resolution sessions will be a big step toward making the campuses more peaceful and productive.