Post-Katrina tensions in Houston. Read on. -Angela
Dec. 8, 2005, 6:52AM
27 are arrested in the latest incident between Katrina evacuees and local students
By MONICA GUZMAN
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
A brawl that began in the Westbury High School cafeteria Wednesday and spilled outdoors capped weeks of growing tension between Houston students and Hurricane Katrina evacuees and resulted in the arrest of 27 students.
The fight was one of about a dozen such on-campus clashes that have roiled Houston and surrounding areas since thousands of students from New Orleans began attending local schools in September.
In response, Westbury students can expect more police at the school beginning today, a school district spokesman said.
Houston Independent School District Board President Dianne Johnson said the efforts would not end there and sought to assure parents that student safety is "our No. 1 priority."
"I feel certain that the administration is going to look into this," she said. "We're certainly going to take whatever steps it takes to make sure that students are safe when they attend school."
The fight Wednesday was sparked, students said, when a girl made a gang sign in or near the cafeteria and a boy loudly cursed New Orleans. It quickly spread to other areas of campus and then outdoors.
HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said he could not confirm how the fight started, saying the details are under investigation. He said he understood it had begun in the cafeteria as a fight between girls.
One minor injury
One student suffered a minor cut to the eye, Abbott said. No other injuries were reported.
Westbury, in southwest Houston, has nearly 2,500 students, including 300 from Louisiana. Fifteen of those arrested after Wednesday's brawl were Katrina evacuees, said HISD spokeswoman Adriana Villareal. Eighteen were juveniles.
The juveniles were released to their parents. The remaining students were taken to a jail in southeast Houston, she said.
All were charged with engaging in a riot, and an adult female from Houston faces a charge of assaulting a police officer, officials said. The charges are misdemeanors, and no weapons were involved, Abbott said.
The mother of a 14-year-old freshman at Westbury said things have changed at the school.
"After Katrina, I hate to say it, but it's been chaos," she said. "It's really sad. It's truly sad."
Some Houston students said the once-open social atmosphere at the school has become charged with new tensions since New Orleans students joined their classes.
"The first two years I was here, we hung together, everyone knew each other," said a 17-year-old junior. "They just don't like people from Houston ... There's been a whole bunch of fights," he said.
Some New Orleans students said they represent a clear minority in the school and are being unfairly targeted.
"Altercations have been happening, but it never got down to this," said an 18-year-old.
Graffiti scrawled on the door of a girls restroom seems to mark the built-up tensions.
On the door's center, "New Orleans Takin' Over," is crossed out. Nearby, "H-town forever!" is scrawled. The phrase "Go home" is answered with a crude "no." Profanities litter the door.
Abbott said graffiti is a common nuisance in many schools and that any graffiti at Westbury High will be painted over in regular maintenance.
He said that along with an increase in police presence at Westbury, parents and students can expect more administrators and counselors to be on hand to defuse tensions.
Main priority: academics
Last week, Westbury administrators met with local and evacuee parents to talk about the new students' transition into the school. The predominant concern among those students was not fighting or security but academics, he said.
The parent of two girls arrested waited for several hours to pick up her 15- and 16-year-old daughters at the police substation at 8300 Mykawa.
"They have fights all the time (at the school) but I never thought it would be my girls," the woman said.
After being released late Wednesday, the younger teen said the fight broke out when Houston students taunted a batch of students from New Orleans with gang symbols. The older sibling said she noticed the crowd of students and saw another girl hitting her sister so she rushed to help her from the ground. Then punches were thrown at her, she said.
"It was like the whole school was fighting," the younger girl said.
The girls, who were suspended for three days, will not be returning to the school, their mother said. Instead, she will seek to enroll them in school in New Orleans.
The brawl is the latest in a series of fights at Houston-area high schools between local students and newcomers from Louisiana.
In September, a fight that started with a Jones High School student tossing a soda can at Katrina students involved two dozen teens.
Five were arrested; three were hospitalized.
Last month, Conroe High School students cited tension between locals and evacuees as the cause of a brawl involving about 30 students.
"We've definitely had a number of incidents, probably a dozen or so significant incidents," Abbott said. "But the vast majority of kids have gotten along well."
Chronicle reporters Rosanna Ruiz and Jason Spencer contributed to this report.