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Schools battle the problems and the rumors

Two weeks ago, it was Plant City High, where a poem read at a Black History Month assembly touched off racial tensions at the school.

There was a fight and some threats. By the end of the day, some parents heard rumors of race riots and kept their children out of school.

Last week, it was Eisenhower Junior High, where a fight between a Mexican student and a white student started rumors of widespread violence. Some parents heard the rumors and kept their children out of school.

This week, it was Oak Grove Junior High, where a group of four students assaulted classmates in a hallway Wednesday, touching off rumors of racial violence. Hundreds of students stayed home Friday.

In each case, the scuffles lasted just a few minutes, but administrators spent days dealing with rumors and threats of more violence.

"Kids that age get all excited and repeat what they've heard," said Deputy Superintendent Pete Davidsen. "Then you've got rumors all over the place."

At each school, things got back to normal fairly quickly. But administrators still are trying to figure out why the schools seem to be buzzing with racial tension.

As always, officials noted that schools reflect the best and worst in the community at large. Davidsen said teens often are big on rumors and short on self-control.

One man who has investigated teen violence and race relations in local schools offered a theory about why racial tension might be high this time of year.

"It's Black History Month," said Roy Kaplan, regional director of the National Conference, formerly called the National Conference of Christians and Jews. "There's a lot of tension out there, and this is bringing it to the surface."

Kaplan, a sociologist who regularly works in area schools with race problems, said February's Black History Month activities can "cause white students to feel discriminated against or left out. It's sad because the white students don't realize the other 11 months of the year are white history month."

Barbara Bethel, a supervisor in the district's human relations department, agreed that black history is best woven into the curriculum and taught throughout the year.

"But we haven't gotten to the ideal," Bethel said. "We're a long way from that. I think it can unsurface some of these feelings, but it was never intended to cause problems. I think some parents and students misinterpret its intent."

Kaplan's theory seems a credible explanation for what happened at Plant City High. The racial tensions became apparent there after a black student read a poem at a Black History Month assembly.

Some white students booed, and later there was a fight.

It's unclear how big a role it played in this week's disturbances at Oak Grove Junior High. The violence was particularly disturbing to school officials because Oak Grove was troubled by racially charged violence in March 1992, just after Black History Month. That year, two junior high schools in Hillsborough experienced racial violence in a period of a few days in late February and early March.

Wednesday's incident at Oak Grove resulted in the suspension and arrest of four black students. The youths reportedly went down a school hallway punching white students. One student suffered a broken nose, Davidsen said.

The four were charged with battery and suspended from school for 10 days. There will be a hearing to determine whether they should be transferred to an alternative school.

After that incident, there were rumors that Friday would be "Cracker Day" _ a day when black students would beat up white students. School officials sent extra security to the school. A note was sent home to parents. The day passed without incident, but more than 400 students stayed home.

Oak Grove is a seventh-grade center where about 20 percent of the students are black and 80 percent are white.

"Everything seemed fine today, but a lot of people were concerned," Davidsen said. "Parents hear these stories and they tend to believe them. They want their kids to be safe at school."

Kaplan said he wasn't suggesting that Black History Month be discontinued, but he said school districts can do better.

"The ideal situation would be to have these different cultures appropriately presented in textbooks and lectures throughout the year," he said.