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

The administration has also been pelted with criticism regarding its handling of Black History Month and the teaching of black history in general. "They don't address black history. They'd rather talk about Christopher Columbus over in Spain," contends Adrian Souffrant. Co-captain of the varsity basketball team, Charles Collier, adds that Miami Northwestern Senior High in Liberty City, where he spent his freshman year, held seven different assemblies commemorating Black History Month (as opposed to the two at Gables this year.) The student body of Northwestern is more than 90 percent black.

Some Gables High students perceive themselves as being narrowly appreciated, either for their talent or their skin color. Several participants in the International Baccalaureate program say they feel like quota fillers. "Ever since I got here, it's like they wanted us for the sake of the program," mutters sophomore Paulson Tuffet. "When you come here, it's not like it's you. It's a racial issue. I'm in classes with a whole bunch of white people." Athletes, too, complain that they are coddled for their proficiency on the playing field, then ignored when the season ends.

There are also charges of harassment on the part of some faculty and staff members. "Some students, when we talk about these things, they can't see it," says senior Georgette Allen. "We'll say these things and they'll bust out and say, 'Oh, it's not the color of your skin. It's because you're young,' trying to play it like we have a black complex."

Debbie Anderson, who is among the few faculty members black students confide in, observes, "The black kids come to black teachers and talk about their frustration, but we tend to only talk among ourselves. We kind of keep it under wraps and don't deal with it. When you have a job, you don't want to lose it."

Miami Herald columnist Robert L. Steinback, who spoke at the school two weeks before the run-in with police, noticed the growing tension. "A high level of student frustration was already evident. Some teachers privately worried that an explosion was imminent," Steinback noted in a March 3 column. "It was almost like pulling the top off the cauldron A it was just starting to bubble out when we had to stop," the columnist adds in retrospect.

"Brilliant, articulate black kids articulating their rage," English teacher Amy Scott says of the assembly that featured Steinback. "I was fascinated to hear them express themselves. Yet we have no forum. I don't think the white population of the school knew about the anger. The perception the administration wants to get out is that this is the perfect school," adds Scott, who is white. "Is it a black-white issue? Oh, yeah. And also an ivory tower issue. It's an administration that is locked in and it's either 'my way or the highway.'"

Many students contend that had the February 27 incident not occurred, and had the administration continued to ignore the need for a forum in which students of all races could vent, the anger would have boiled over at another juncture. "That was something that was built up," asserts student Paulson Tuffet. "It was something that was going to happen."

If there is disgruntlement at Gables High, argues Mandy Offerle, it isn't accurate to sketch it along racial lines. "There are groups of kids who feel alienated, but I don't think it's specific to black kids," the principal says, pointing out that the student body president last year was black, and that blacks and whites continue to serve on the student government together, as well as on the school's athletic teams. "If anything, I think black kids have had such neat success," Offerle stresses, adding, "I think we can do a better job of reaching out to all kids. It's a tough time in life."

In response to the mayhem of February 27, and to recommendations offered by the school system's crisis intervention team, Offerle says she is taking several steps to address student dissatisfaction. She has jump-started the Heritage Panel, a dormant multicultural educational program, and assigned a teacher as its full-time director. She has re-established a so-called principal's advisory committee of students. "The purpose is for me to run by them really important things that I need kid input on," explains the principal. "Also, for them to bring issues to the table." She also has formed three student advisory committees devoted to extracurricular activities, athletics, and academic affairs, respectively.

Barbara Carey, an assistant superintendent for Dade County Public Schools who oversees the district's Office of Multicultural Programs, says she plans to conduct a sensitivity training program for teachers at Gables High. While Carey discounts the notion that the school is demographically unique A she points to Miami Beach Senior High, which hosts 70 nationalities and draws students from neighborhoods as socioeconomically diverse as Miami Beach's residential islands and Liberty City A she thinks Coral Gables's conservatism sets a tone for the school. "The high school is in a very conservative community; it's not a community that adapts to change very easily," Carey says. Some of the teachers, she suspects, are accustomed to well-rounded students with high academic standing. "Now they have kids who have had experiences that don't make them academically inclined. There's a need for nurturing. When I was in school, my teachers gave us nurturing. They didn't talk down to us, they didn't go on with the lesson whether we got it or not. Kids sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Based on some things I hear kids say, many times they don't get that extra communication they need. A good teacher is a nurturer. A good teacher can do that and still impart knowledge."

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