Officials Backpedal From Idea Color Was Behind Shooting
March 8, 2007
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
Only hours after gunfire sent 10 teenagers running for their lives and forced the lockdown of an elementary school last week, Hartford's police chief and the school system's spokesman attributed the violence to racial tension at Hartford Public High School.
Now they're not so sure.
And nearly two dozen Hartford Public students and teachers interviewed this week flat out dismissed the notion of strife between blacks and Hispanics at the 1,500-student high school.
They say there are plenty of fights at the school - some of them pretty serious brawls - but those clashes are based on personal gripes, not general hatred based on race.
Both Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts and school district spokesman Terry D'Italia this week are backing off their assertions that shotgun fire aimed at black youths last Thursday near Burns Elementary School was racially motivated.
Roberts said he had initially reported what some of the victims had claimed - that they were targeted by Hispanics "because they are black." But further investigation has determined "one of the issues may involve a young lady," he said.
Police have a suspect and will apply for an arrest warrant soon. "We're 90 percent sure who shot the shotgun," Roberts said. "We think we've identified him."
D'Italia said he was sorry he'd mentioned racial tension; he said he was repeating what he had heard from Roberts.
If race was a factor, Roberts said this week, the tension is limited to a small group of people and does not reflect the broader school climate.
That mirrors what the school's principal, teachers and students said this week about race at Hartford Public.
Getting ready for a pickup basketball game Tuesday afternoon at the Pope Park Recreation Center - where the black teenagers were headed last week when they were shot at - sophomore Augustine Perez and his friends said they had never seen evidence of racial tension at Hartford Public.
"That's my best friend," the Hispanic Perez said, pointing to a black classmate walking into the gym. "He's been my best friend for four years."
The school's principal, Zandralyn Gordon, had maintained from the day of the incident that race could not be a factor. Gangs, perhaps, but not race, she said.
At Hartford Public this week, teacher after teacher and a class full of students said they were mystified by the reports of racial divisions at the diverse school, where about 65 percent of students are Hispanic and 30 percent are black.
"I see fights," said junior Carliesha Murray. "But it's always about something that happened in school. Nobody fights someone because they don't look like their brother."
What about the black victims' assertion that they were shot at because of the color of their skin?
Chelsea Gore, a junior, wasn't buying it. "That's just a way not to get in trouble," she said.
"This is not a race war," history teacher Bobby Abate, who is white, asserted with such passion that he couldn't stand still. "Come on! The vast majority of kids in this school get along. They're in clubs together. They're on teams together. ... Every time a black kid and a Puerto Rican kid fight, it's not racial, it's personal."
Perry McFadden, who oversees in-school suspensions, coaches track and is black, recalled his bewilderment when he read officials' comments about racial tension. "I just said, `What are they talking about?'"
At suburban schools, McFadden said, an Irish student might fight an Italian student, and "you wouldn't call it ethnic tension. It just so happens that with our kids you can see the difference."
Some students said there is a definite awareness of racial differences.
The school's third floor is popularly referred to as "Park Street," a reference to the heart of Hartford's Hispanic community, because Hispanic students congregate in the halls there speaking Spanish.
The second floor, where more black students congregate, often is called "The Ave," after Albany Avenue, a major artery in the city's largely black North End.
But Abate and some students note that Spanish is predominant on the third floor because that's where the school has bilingual and English as a second language classes, as well as its international academy.
Some students said they didn't appreciate officials' mischaracterizing their school. It's tiresome, they say, to have to explain over and over again that Hartford Public isn't a scary place to be.
Rose Swaim, a senior, went to her job at Harry's Pizza in West Hartford Center last weekend, just a couple of days after news reports on the gunfire.
People kept asking her, "`How can you go to school there? Don't you get scared?'" she said.
She tells them no, she's not scared.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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