After the Brawl

Everybody heard about the tussle between white cops and black students but the discord at Coral Gables High goes far deeper than that

But Offerle believes the brawl had nothing to do with either economics or race. The whole thing could have been prevented, she insists, if the Black History Month program had been scheduled differently, and if outsiders hadn't been allowed to participate. (Ironically, no charges were filed against the nonstudent choreographers because the student involved in the backstage skirmish refused to file charges.) "There's nothing whatsoever to do with color, which is what the whole world is turning us into," she argues. "People in the building operate colorlessly, by and large. People outside the building have made it a color thing. It has become something polar. It may be every kid in the building is not treated perfectly, but we have 3300 kids. It's not black-white."

Two months after the altercation, however, Coral Gables High School's black population is still seething. Many observers point to a legacy of bitterness and racial tension that extends far beyond the stool-throwing incident, back to the mid-1960s, when black students first were bused into Coral Gables from the predominantly black and largely impoverished neighborhood of West Coconut Grove (commonly known as the Black Grove). The busing created a distinct racial minority in a hitherto lily-white school, a minority that has felt isolated and disenfranchised ever since, even as Hispanics have come to dominate the school's population. Blacks now constitute about 12 percent of the student body, which is 67 percent Latin and 21 percent Anglo. Of the blacks, more than half come from Coconut Grove. (By comparison, the countywide breakdown of children enrolled in Dade's public schools is approximately 34 percent black, 50 percent Latin, 15 percent Anglo, and 1 percent Asian and Native American.)

"This incident wasn't solely the result of police and black students being present in one location. There's a direct correlation between past injustice students have suffered and the conflict with the police," asserts Jelani Gould-Bailey, a junior from Coconut Grove who is managing editor of the school newspaper. "The whole thing we've tried to convey to [principal Mandy Offerle] is that there were other areas where tension was building up."

Some of these "areas" were elucidated in the aftermath of the conflict. Students, Gould-Bailey among them, spoke out during in-school student assemblies, off-campus community meetings, and conferences with Gables High administrators and school district officials. While Gables High comprises a distinctly stratified academic community A with students assigned to "general," "honors," or, at the top, the highly touted "International Studies" and "International Baccalaureate" magnet programs -- expressions of discontent among black students cut across these lines.

After a meeting with a cadre of students, the Intergroup Relations Team, a group of crisis-intervention specialists from Dade County Public Schools, produced a lengthy list of "student concerns and recommendations" that spotlighted the anger, resentment, and frustration of Gables High's black population. Among the distilled comments:

* "Coral Gables Senior is a racist establishment. Black students do not feel welcome or appreciated."

* "Lack of black student representation in the [250-member] student government. The four black officers complain that important information often bypasses them."

* "Many black students reported they feel uncomfortable going through the main office. They have a feeling that people are condescending to them."

* "Many black students feel a great separation and lack of communication between the administration and the students."

* "Many black students stated they need to see evidence of caring and sensitivity towards them by the administrators."

Black students continue to express their feelings of isolation, and of the pressures of living under what many perceive to be a racial microscope. "We have to be on our p's and q's more than the next guys," attests senior Omar Francis. "If I say the wrong thing or I curse, I'm considered vulgar."

Adds eighteen-year-old Adrian Souffrant, a Coconut Grove resident: "We don't feel on the same level as other kids."

Many black students complain they are forced to subjugate their own culture to conform to the mainstream's. "To get a feel for what is happening, you have to go back 30 years," explains Georgette Allen, who commutes from Perrine to participate in the school's International Baccalaureate (IB) magnet program. "It wasn't a school that tried to blend different cultures. The school is rooted in tradition, and because of that you hear things like, 'Things are the same way as when I went to school in 1975.'"

Sophomore Paulson Tuffet, another IB student, travels to Gables High from Liberty City. "The only reason I come here is because I know I have a better chance of getting into college," he says. "I can't act the way I do around other black people, I can't use certain expressions, certain words."

Since the violence of February 27, many black students have complained that the school doesn't offer enough black-oriented extracurricular activities. English teacher Debbie Anderson, who is of mixed Cayman Island and Honduran ancestry, says school administrators have been reluctant to develop black-oriented events. She volunteered to supervise the fateful Black History Month program, she says, because "other black teachers didn't want to do it. They didn't want to deal with the administration. Every time a 'black program' comes up, we are told it can be a 'volatile situation.' The perception has always been when you see a group of black students get together, [the administration] begins to get worried."

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