After the Brawl
Scant empirical documentation remains of the February 27 brawl between police and students at Coral Gables High School. The blood that spilled on the ground from the forehead of Ofcr. Peter Cuervo has since dried and washed away. Cuervo's injury, which required eight stitches, has nearly healed, as have the cuts, scratches, and bruises sustained by other participants.
Perhaps the most telling piece of surviving evidence is a videotape of the scene shot by a student. Brief and shaky, it doesn't tell the full story of what happened. But what it does reveal in its gritty, impromptu immediacy is a chilling scene of white police officers doing battle with black girls and boys on the grounds of their own school.
The tape shows a blurry scrum of bodies, a police officer hooking a large student under the leg, the pair toppling violently to the ground. Shouts and screams of teenagers. Jostled, the camera dips low, and a parked car's hood fills the frame. Then back to a tangle of bodies. The camera captures an officer wrestling handcuffs onto a student who is on the ground, pressed up against the bumper of a car. An officer, blood dripping down his face, standing over a handcuffed student lying facedown on the asphalt.
The video camera shut off before the clash ended. In all, six black students A four boys and two girls A were handcuffed, arrested, and taken away in police cars. An equal number of Coral Gables police officers left the school with injuries.
There is no consensus regarding the cause of the melee that Monday morning. Some trace its origins to the school's auditorium, where a Black History Month assembly attended by about 1000 students had just ended. When the program, originally scheduled for an hour, overlapped into the next class period, supervising faculty members cut it short. According to eyewitnesses, an altercation ensued, during which one of the show's choreographers flung a stool at a student. The choreographer and his companion, neither of whom attend Gables High, left the building and stalked off the campus. Following the men outside, an assistant principal saw one of them reach suspiciously into a bag. Concerned, he used his walkie-talkie to radio for assistance.
The call was relayed to the Coral Gables Police Department, which dispatched seven police officers -- all of them white -- to the scene. "We made a call for a police resource officer who knows us, but he was in training," recalls Mandy Offerle, principal of Gables High. "Then we asked for a unit. What they heard was, 'Assistant principal at Gables High needs backup.'"
At that moment hundreds of students were streaming out of the auditorium into the faculty parking lot off Le Jeune Road near Altara Street, many heading to nearby convenience stores and fast-food outlets for lunch. "I don't know what the cops perceived. What they saw was a lot of kids," says Offerle, who by that time had dashed to the parking lot from her office. Several of the cops approached the growing group of students, many of whom were black, and began ordering them to go back to the school grounds.
"A number of police officers were attempting to break up and disseminate a large crowd of students," reads the incident report filed by one officer. "As I entered the crowd I was attempting to have the students leave the area."
"I saw the black kids gathering, and I told them to leave because I knew the perception many people have of large groups of black kids," recalls Debbie Anderson, an English teacher who had helped coordinate the black-history program.
"The assistant principal told us not to go to Burger King," remembers Charles Collier, a Gables High senior. "He told us to stay inside the gate. Next thing we knew, we seen one police walk over, and next we seen he was talking to Chauka [Hunt, one of the students who was arrested]."
"Somehow the cops got close enough to the kids," says Offerle. "Someone [among the officers] misread the fact that it was a controlled situation."
The officer's report: "I had approached [Hunt] and asked him to leave the area. He refused to leave and in fact stepped towards me. Also his volume (voice) got louder and as he and I exchanged words the crowd continued to get excited and encroach towards us."
Offerle: "And then, whether a kid pushed a police officer or a police officer pushed a kid, fists moved."
Collier: "He pushed Chauka and then started hitting him."
The police report: "I attempted to remove [Hunt] from the area at which time we engaged in a fight. We went from a standing position to the ground."
"The police were coming in, looking tough and telling kids to disperse," says Debbie Anderson. "When kids didn't disperse, they began to swing their batons. Everything I saw was like slow motion for me. I actually began crying."
"I'm telling kids to go back behind the fence. My focus was so much on the kids," Offerle remembers. "I saw kids and cops grappling. That's probably the worst thing that could happen to a person who cares about kids. Probably? It is the worst, definitely."
"The administration was telling people to move back, but you could only move back so fast," asserts student Michael Webb. "The police were whupping people on the back, picking sisters up. One of my friends was trying to grab one of his friends who was being beat up [by an officer] and he got yoked down, too."
Officer's report: "As the defendant was being arrested the defendant punches this officer. The defendant and this officer were in a fight and went from a standing position to the ground."
"I saw some blood shooting up in the air," Debbie Anderson says. "I saw a kid balled up crying, balled up on the ground. I saw a police officer hitting the boy with a baton."
Collier: "If you see a lot of police beating up one of your friends, you going to try to help."
Anderson: "[Student] Lorenzo Woodley was yelling and screaming for the administration to do something. 'Why doesn't somebody stop this? Do something! He's not moving! He's on the ground!' Then Lorenzo grabbed the policeman, lifted him off the ground, and body-slammed him into a red car."
Officer's report: "Officer Pete Cuervo was attempting to place [Woodley] into custody. A struggle ensued, and [Woodley] resisted arrest. During the struggle, [Woodley] hit Officer Cuervo in the face with a blunt object causing severe injury, and a lasceration [sic]. Sergeant Miyares tackled the defendant and another struggle ensued."
"We had every right to be out there," contends senior Khalilah Jefferson. "The officers swung the first lick. It was like, all of us against all of them."
"It was like scenes I see on TV from the Sixties, except for the water hose and the dogs," says Georgette Allen, another student. "It was a mental violation, a mental rape. It took away a lot of people's innocence."
"We're being made to look like the bad guys," says one officer, who requested anonymity. "And we got our butts kicked!"
"We would've like to have shot 'em all in the head," seventeen-year-old Adam Brewton grumbles. "But we can't."
"Cruel ironies," begins an editorial in the April 12 issue of the school's newspaper, Highlights, much of which was devoted to coverage of the incident and its repercussions. "It started during our annual Black History Assembly, a performance that was supposed to be the culmination of a presentation exemplifying the best of not only black history, but tolerance and unity among all races. It exploded into anger.... The timing of the disturbance should give all of us something to think about, forcing us to confront issues often ignored or brushed aside."
Gables High principal Mandy Offerle is one of those who trace the fight directly to the stool-tossing scene in the auditorium A and no further. "The causality of it was that some nonstudent clobbered one of our kids and the cops misread the situation and people got into one another's faces too quick."
She cannot comment about the academic and behavioral records of the six arrested students because such information is confidential. The students themselves either refused to comment for this story or failed to return repeated phone calls. But according to Gables High faculty members who spoke on condition of anonymity, the six are average to below-average students. Two of them had previously attended Miami-MacArthur South, an alternative education program for students with serious disciplinary and academic problems. A third, who reportedly was failing several of her classes at Gables at the time of the incident, is currently enrolled at Miami-MacArthur South. (Citing confidentiality statutes, State Attorney's Office spokesmen refused to release information about whether any of the arrested students had prior criminal records.)
A square-shouldered woman with a stern demeanor, Offerle sits restlessly at a conference table in her office. With occasional brief turns of her head, she is able to glance out her window and monitor the goings-on at the entrance to the school, a massive two-story box sliced by hallways and courtyards that sits on a 26-acre sprawl of buildings and playing fields.
Throughout an hour-long interview, Offerle is constantly in motion. While seated, she fiddles with her glasses and absentmindedly thumbs through sheets of paper in front of her. But she doesn't remain seated for long stretches. Something continually draws her away from the table: a piece of thread dangling from a chair that needs to be snipped with scissors; a scrap of paper that has fallen to the floor; a stack of papers to be straightened.
If Offerle's mannerisms don't reveal her discomfort with the subject matter, her words do. "There are a million great stories here that no one ever reads about. Why don't you write about those?" she asks defiantly.
"I'm concerned about churning up garbage and idiot-level opinions. I don't want it to backslide into garbage-intensiveness."
An assistant principal at Gables High from 1982 to 1987, Offerle later served as principal of the New World School of the Arts before returning to run Gables High in the summer of 1993. She admits the school's eclectic demography effects a certain tension: Its irregularly shaped district incorporates chunks of Coral Gables, Miami, West Miami, Key Biscayne, and unincorporated Dade, and tosses together some of the county's poorest students with some of its wealthiest. Additionally, some students are bused in from outside the district to participate in the school's magnet programs. ("You have kids who are living in Cocoplum in three-million-dollar homes to kids who have trouble finding a pair of jeans to wear in the morning," remarks Harold Cole, Gables High's athletic director and the administrative assistant to the principal. "We're meeting the needs of a corporate president's kids to meeting the needs of his maid's kids.")
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."
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."
Carey says she plans to schedule faculty sessions that feature conflict resolution and peer mediation, as well as multicultural awareness. "And we want teachers to stop waiting until Black History Month to talk about blacks," she adds sharply. "Mandy [Offerle] inherited the situation there, but it was a wake-up call and that school will now be better than it's ever been."
The February 27 fight had a marked impact outside the walls of the school, spurring communitywide response in West Coconut Grove and considerable self-reflection among that area's leaders about how to better tie the neighborhood to Gables High. John Due, director of the Black Affairs Office of the Metro-Dade Department of Community Affairs, has overseen the recent formation of the Coconut Grove-Coral Gables Community Council, which brings together educators, ministers, parents, students, and community-based organizations from the Black Grove and a small, predominantly black area of southeast Coral Gables near South Dixie Highway.
Among the council's objectives: build a "surrogate parent program," as Due calls it, for students from homes with little or no parental presence; establish a tutoring program for black students; review the Coral Gables Police Department's affirmative action policy and sensitivity training; and encourage more community participation in the school's PTA. (At the time of the arrests, not one black parent was active in the PTA, according to Dade County School Board member Frederica Wilson.)
"We need to reestablish that sense of self-worth [in the community]," explains Due. "And we need to develop a new partnership between the Coral Gables community and the Coconut Grove community. At one time there was a partnership based on master-slave relationship. These kids from the Grove are here to stay. The Grove isn't going to go anywhere. We can either benefit from having a diverse bi-community, or we can have continuing conflict."
Though she commends the efforts themselves, something about their timing troubles English teacher Amy Scott. "What are we teaching our children?" she asks. "That through the process of law and order and communication nothing gets done? That through violence they get a voice?"
Whether the students actually gain that voice remains to be seen. So far, at any rate, the loudest voices have been those of the adults A police, administrators, school district officials, parents, community activists, and politicians A all of whom have unceasingly jockeyed for possession of the bullhorn of public expression, usually with diminishing effect.
The Dade County School Board's March 8 meeting, its first after the incident, was a case in point, as speaker after angry speaker took the podium to denounce the police, the school, the school administration, the school board, and society's neglect of the underprivileged in general.
"I want to serve notice that the PULSE organization [People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality] does hold the school board responsible for what happened to the children they are responsible for overseeing," announced PULSE president Charles Gray when his time came to address the board. "We know the conditions, we know the situation that exists in our schools, and when something like this occurs, I don't think we need to hide or try to push it back for someone else to do it. But I think we should do what we can to protect our children."
Then came Patricia Due, educational chairwoman of the NAACP and John Due's wife: "Enough is enough. The NAACP...[is] requesting a comprehensive investigation of the principal and her policies that led to the beating and arrest of our children.... If you cannot take care of children, perhaps it's time again to ask the office of civil rights to come in to look at a system that is very hostile to blacks and African-Americans. You decide if you're responsible."
They were followed by numerous others, including former state representative Darryl Reaves, former City of Miami mayoral candidate Danny Couch, and community activist Yvonne McDonald.
Finally, toward the end of the procession of speakers, a young black man sporting a goatee, sideburns, and the hint of an Afro took the podium. In a calm and measured tone, he introduced himself as Jelani Gould-Bailey, a junior at Gables Senior High, and proceeded to offer the school board and the audience an articulate and rational analysis of the situation, free of angry rhetoric. The school board members had finally caught a glimpse of the battlefield amid the verbal flak.
Gould-Bailey's presentation was unique for another, more potent reason: He is an actual student. He served as a reminder that the fundamental issue at hand was neither politics nor rhetoric, but flesh and blood, the well-being of young people, children.
Two weeks later, as a result of an investigation into the incident, the Dade State Attorney's Office dropped charges against four of the six defendants A nineteen-year-old Chauka Xavier Hunt, seventeen-year-old Rachel Dukes, seventeen-year-old Frederick Gooch, and eighteen-year-old Octavius Veargis. Prosecutors also reduced the charges against the other two defendants A eighteen-year-old Lorenzo Woodley and fifteen-year-old Lolyndo Bethel. Woodley is scheduled to stand trial June 5 on charges of battery on a police officer and resisting arrest without violence; Bethel will be tried this Tuesday on identical charges. State Attorney's Office investigations into the students' participation and police conduct are still under way.
At a March 20 meeting, black community leaders appealed to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to find a way to drop the remaining charges. They particularly rallied behind Lorenzo Woodley, a 255-pound fullback on the Gables High football team and a popular student who is considering whether to accept a football scholarship to a junior college in California. "[Woodley] needs to go to college and needs to become productive," begged school board member Frederica Wilson. "He's going to college, and it's my concern that he not have a criminal record."
Assistant superintendent Barbara Carey suggested that the two sides A police and defendants A come together and settle the issue out of court. "I'm here so these students don't have a criminal record. I'll tell you," she added ominously, "it's not going to be healthy for this community if those students are found guilty of something and the police get off for free." While Rundle expressed support for this idea, she pointed out that technically speaking, the police officers were the victims in the fight and "they have a lot of role in settling this case."
Denying a request for an interview with her son for this story, De-Borah Dukes, the mother of former defendant Octavius Veargis, pleaded for a quick resolution to the matter. "Enough is enough. It's time for a closing, a closing on the six kids making the right statement, a closing on the parents and the police chief," she urged. "We all have a good understanding of this. We love our kids. Let them know that my son Octavius is the most important thing in my life and I'm not going to let anything come between him being a happy person in life.
"Two days ago was his [nineteenth] birthday," Dukes went on. "And it was very disturbing because he had to go in and be interviewed by the State Attorney. What a way to celebrate a birthday! Enough is enough. It's time for the kids to enjoy themselves."
But apparently enough is not enough, and efficient diplomacy, while attractive in concept, is hard to come by when feelings of injustice run deep. Attorney Stephen Malove has notified Coral Gables officials that his client, Octavius Veargis, intends to sue the city for the emotional and physical distress caused by the arrest. Asked to explain the contradiction between her stated desire for a rapid and diplomatic reconciliation and the legal maneuvering on behalf of her son, Dukes became indignant. "Who ain't supposed to fight?" she demanded. "Everybody knows who was wrong. This is a revolution thing. It's a black and white thing.
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