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Students heal rifts and quell flames

Published Oct. 12, 2005

By the time the buses rolled into the parking lot, the Azalea Middle School pupils looked ready to rumble.

Already that week in early March, racial violence had exploded at Dixie Hollins High, involving about 100 students in a brawl. Two days later, trouble appeared to be headed for Azalea.

The problem brewed on the way to school. Following busloads of black children were cars occupied by white men.

They showed guns to the children, displayed white sheets as if they were Klu Klux Klan uniforms, chanted "KKK" and continually screamed racial slurs. The men followed the buses to school and drove away.

Principal John Leanes knew trouble pulled in with the buses.

"When the buses arrived, these kids were angry, hostile and upset," Leanes said. "They got off the bus looking to retaliate against the first white kids they saw."

One white pupil was punched, but that was the only incident. Azalea squelched the tension when Leanes dispatched his own type of SWAT team _ a group of 13-year-olds, boys and girls, white and black. Armed only with ideas, the team broke into groups of three and patrolled the halls.

These pupils, members of a unique multicultural class, searched for upset peers, pulled them aside and reasoned with them. They also tried to stop the raging stories circulating the school.

Azalea's multicultural class may be the only one of its kind in the state. It stemmed from the school's multicultural committee _ a required group for every high school and middle school since 1990. This year, the committees will also be formed in elementary schools.

The multicultural program in Pinellas schools is getting noticed. Last month, a member of the non-profit National Council on Crime and Delinquency came to Pinellas to study the program. The council received a grant to study the prevention of anti-hate crimes and chose Pinellas.

"They have a model program," said David Onek of the council, which is based in San Francisco.

They have a heavy task

In the incident at Azalea, the situation was highly charged.

"Rumors were flying," said Yvonne Khalil, 13, now an eighth-grader in the school. "There was one that the KKK was hiding in the boys bathroom."

"People were getting so freaked out about it," said Kieley Hughes, 13, another eighth-grader.

The multicultural class pupils were excused from their other classes. Their task that day in March proved to be full-time.

"The situation improved drastically from one hour to the next," said Charlene Boses, who teaches the multicultural class, adding that the adults could not have handled it alone. "It's amazing how small four administrators look when there are hundreds of kids upset."

The incident occurred on a Friday.

"When Monday rolled around, we were back to normal," Leanes said. "I attribute that totally to the intervention" by the students.

The Azalea group has proved effective, not only in the incident in March, but also in removing a substitute teacher last year who made racial remarks in class.

According to Leanes, the multicultural pupils learned of the teacher's remarks and drafted a memo to the administration, asking for the teacher's removal. As a result, he no longer teaches in Pinellas County.

Students in the class get a social studies credit. Roy Kaplan, regional director of the National Council of Christian and Jews, one of the founders of the multicultural program, said he would like the Azalea class to serve as a model for other schools.

The class and other aspects of the program will be studied by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. The council originally chose to observe programs in Dade and Pinellas counties. But then Hurricane Andrew disrupted Dade, and the council focused on Pinellas.

"The program they have is very, very good. It is an excellent one that we think we can learn from and add to," said Onek, who will return to Pinellas later this month or in November.

How it got started

The program was instituted by the National Council of Christian and Jews, and sponsored by the school system and the Juvenile Welfare Board. It includes racial sensitivity training for teachers, overnight and weeklong workshops for students and the multicultural committees.

The committees, which also are labeled human relations committees, are groups of selected students of various races and religions, along with adults from the faculty and the community.

"They are expected to develop activities and programs in their own schools that will help the ethnic, racial and religious sensitivity of the faculty and student body," said Glenn Kranzow, the Pinellas school district's director of community services and human relations. "And they help deal with issues as they come up."

The committees put on assemblies or theme days (students wore sunglasses one day at Tarpon Springs High to "shade out racism"). And they are also called to action, like at Azalea Middle.

Other groups, such as the one at Largo High, have helped their student body as well as students at other schools.

"Our kids were used last year to go to Dixie Hollins and other schools to suggest some things they could do to improve relations," said James Feazell, one of Largo's faculty advisers.

Feazell said the committees help the schools just by being there.

"The presence of these kids in school, being good role models



. they are not color-conscious," Feazell said. "It makes it easier for them to approach any students, not just students of their own color."

An ethnic, religious mix

The Azalea pupils in this year's multicultural class had to apply for admission, or were recommended by teachers. There is a mix of ethnic and religious backgrounds. The pupils learn to counsel their peers, as well as explore their own beliefs and feelings.

Candice Costelle, 13, a white eighth-grader, said "a lot of blacks were really rude to me" when she began sixth grade. But she has learned not to stereotype. "I can't blame that on the whole black race."

Phadrhea Acoff, an eighth-grader who is black, remembers sitting outside of the school.

"A car drove by and started yelling out "n-----s,' " said Phadrhea, 13. "My first feeling was that all white people are so stupid. . . . But I realized that wasn't true. A lot of my friends are white."

Several in the class mentioned their close ties with others of different race and background as being the catalyst for their changing opinions.

One part of the program is called shadowing, when a white pupil stays overnight with a black pupil's family, and vice versa.

Friendships form. Some kids talked about going to the mall together, learning that their common ground as 13-year-olds is a lot stronger than their differences in color.

They seem aware that they are changing attitudes, in themselves and in their peers. Kristin Ramsay, a seventh-grader, is following her sister, who took the class last year.

"This helps out a lot," she said.