PEACE in Action

Ethnic Conflict in a U.S. High School

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Building a Culture of Peace
Ethnic Conflict in a U.S. High School

This article was first published in the January/February 1986 issue of PEACE in Action and again in the Summer 1992 issue. Unfortunately, there seems to be even greater need for new ideas to deal with conflict in many schools. While I hope that most schools do not have problems of the magnitude faced by the J.E.B. Stuart High School, the source for this case study, I believe that school officials and parent-teacher groups can find ideas herein that can be helpful in building a culture of peace in their schools, particularly between ethnic groups. They may also want to review articles from the Spring 2004 and Summer 2006 issues, which can be found at our website.

Racial/ethnic tension and conflict were becoming increasingly serious at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia (just outside Washington, D.C.) when Ms. Glynn Bates became principal in the fall of 1982. The parents, particularly of the majority white students, were complaining of poor discipline and declining scholastic scores. They wanted foreign students bussed elsewhere.

Some remedial action had been taken, but study groups were recommending additional measures. Before developing her plan of action, Ms. Bates reviewed past enrollment and conflict patterns, causes of ethnic tension, and the assets available to deal with the situation.

Enrollment and Conflict Patterns

Problems of racial tension went back to the 1960s when black students were first integrated into the school. These problems intensified in 1975 with the influx of students from abroad. By 1982, minority students were 42 percent of enrollment, compared to 11 percent in 1975, and black students were outnumbered by Asians and Hispanics. In 1982, over 500 of some 1400 students enrolled were foreign-born. Half of them received ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction. The students represented 65 countries and over 40 languages. Many of the foreign students had no English language capability; some were illiterate in their native language.

In the 1981-82 school year, 15 out of 16 ethnic conflicts involved white students. In 1982-83, fights increased to 18, and half of them involved minority students only. As the level of conflict escalated, more students began to carry weapons.

There were many contributing factors to the conflict situation, many causes of tension and dissension:

Communications Problems

Students who did not speak English, or did not speak it well, tended to associate only with those who spoke their language or dialect. Even within some groups, there was limited interaction, e.g., children of Embassy personnel, or of military personnel training in the U.S., avoided association with children who came here for economic reasons – legal immigrants, refugees, or illegal aliens. Among the latter group, those who had been here long enough to become Americanized looked down on the newcomers. Students in ESL classrooms were further isolated—they congregated in a single hall where the ESL classrooms were located, and the American and Americanized students stayed away from that hall.

Cultural Factors

People differ not only by size and hair and skin colors, but also by the way they dress. Foreign students often wore their native costumes to school. Indian headdresses, Pakistani oil, Cambodian sarongs, and Buddhist jewelry often were ridiculed by the Americans. The oil used by the Pakistani women is made to attract men, but apparently was too strong for American noses. One Buddhist symbol looked very much like the Nazi swastika and had created misunderstanding.

People differ greatly in values, personalities, and goals. Education for many refugees is a matter of survival in their new homeland. Many Asian children spent lots of time studying: before school, during breaks, during lunch, and after school. Because they gave academic subjects the highest priority, they devoted little attention to sports, clubs, and other extra-curricular activities, thereby excluding themselves from normal American school life.

The Americans interpreted the lack of participation of ESL students in school activities, especially absence from football and basketball games, as an attitude of non-cooperation. Most students from other countries were unaccustomed to participating in school activities after classes were finished. They often had conflicting work schedules. Some were shy, particularly when their English was weak.

The foreign students were resented by many under- achievers. Because ESL students had to take from one to three periods of ESL instruction a day and were not ready to take difficult subjects, they initially had a higher proportion of less academic subjects, such as arts, music, home economics, and physical education. Thus, it was easier for them to earn A's and B's on their grade report cards. The listing of a large number of foreign students on honor rolls irritated some American students and their parents.

Students were bothered sometimes by the way others walked – the macho walk of jocks (participants in sports), the springy walk of the blacks. A student could start a fight by imitating another's walk.

Hispanic and Middle East people tend to stand very close, almost nose-to-nose, during conversations. Americans and Asians back away if someone gets too close to their faces. A conversation between members of these groups would look like shadow boxing – one person advancing, the other backing away.

Touching a person on the head is taboo in some Asian cultures, as is slapping another on the back. American students are more inclined to touch another person's hair, forehead, or the back of their head as a friendly act. Asians are offended and interpret the gesture as an assault.


Talk at home, e.g., comments at the dining table, between parents and children about the refugees, illegal aliens, and other immigrants sowed seeds of prejudice in the minds of children. They in turn spread the word around the school about these people invading the neighborhood and taking away jobs and housing from whites.

Prejudice sometimes resulted from lack of information or facts. Most low-income families resented the fact that refugees received assistance from the government: welfare checks, food stamps, lunch tickets, and free medical care. However, the refugees received these services only during the first 18 months after their arrival in the country. During this time, they had to learn English and find a job. The majority of the refugees were working and paying taxes, but their competition in job hunting was a threat to black and white blue-collar workers. The economic crunch, frustration with school pressure, and failure to secure a job were some of the causes of whites' resentments, and their hostility was directed at foreigners.

Pamphlets distributed by the local Ku Klux Klan in the school parking lot, plus other activities organized by black, Asian, and Hispanic groups, inflamed prejudice and made the relationships among races worse. Stereotyping and name-calling added to the problem.

Family Tensions

These arose from divorce, separation, both parents working, parental pressure, parental discord, unwanted children, alcoholism, drug abuse, no parents, sibling rivalry, parental disinterest, parents overworking, etc.

Many of these elements were identified by American students. Foreign students had the additional problem of becoming acculturated more quickly than their parents. Serious differences arose as old and new values came into conflict.

Economic Factors

Those which contributed to tension at Stuart included lack of money, low-paying jobs, poor housing, lack of employment, poor nutrition, lack of good health care, welfare. The severe contrast of poverty and wealth contributed as much to school tension as did other economic factors.

Outside Influences

These included the police, immigration, work, parties, and competition for jobs. Many of Stuart's foreign students viewed policemen as adversaries because of negative experiences with them in their own countries. Some Salvadoran students, for instance, remembered policemen breaking into their homes in the middle of the night and taking loved ones outside to be shot. Also, many U.S. policemen were not sensitive to cultural and language differences, further exacerbating the relationship.

Several problems stemmed from students' dealing with the U.S. Immigration Services. The Washington, D.C. Office was more than 3 1⁄2 years behind in processing citizenship applications. This produced frustration. Stuart students were often needed to translate when their parents went to the immigration office. This kept them out of school for days at a time.

Most El Salvadoran students were in the U.S. illegally. Their status was not recognized as that of political refugees. They were concerned with avoiding immigration officials, hiding in the community, and working illegally. There were other Central American refugees who fled their countries without filing necessary papers because of the time and expense entailed.

Students who were alone in the United States had to support themselves and attend school at the same time. Some of them reported they did not have time to do their homework. They were irritable and fell asleep in class because of the long hours they worked. Often, these students dropped out of school because of their need to meet everyday expenses.

Even when foreign students were mainstreamed into the school, they were often excluded from American students' parties because of their differences. Such exclusions bred ill feelings.

Black students expressed the feeling of being pushed further down the ethnic totem pole because of the school and community treatment of newcomers. Special courses and programs for non-English- speaking students did not serve black students. Pre-entry level jobs in the community were being filled by newcomers, limiting the opening to black students. Understandable friction resulted from young people who have suffered a history of discrimination.

Ms. Bates asked what had been done about the problem. In July 1980 an audit team had polled parents, teachers, and students about the importance and performance of a number of school factors. Generally, the students gave the school lower marks than did the teachers and parents.

A “Pride of the Spirit” task force was formed. Most of its recommendations focused on greater participation by faculty, staff, and parents in school activities to improve discipline. Little was suggested that would help get to the causes of the tensions.

After a big fight in November 1981 between Vietnamese and American students, Dr. Thu Bui, a Vietnamese-American human relations specialist, was called in to assist. After defusing the crisis, he got student leaders together. They offered some useful suggestions. Dr. Bui supported a number of their recommendations, and he also proposed some in-service training for the faculty and staff to enhance their awareness of minority students' problems and needs; this was done in May 1982.

At the time of the April 1982 fight between Hispanics and Americans, Officer Albert Santiago of the Crime Prevention/Community Relations section of the Fairfax County Police Department was called in to assist in defusing the situation. Officer Santiago was fluent in Spanish and knowledgeable about conflict resolution. He was enrolled in a Master's Degree program in Conflict Management at the Center for Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in nearby Fairfax, Virginia.

Officer Santiago met with Hispanic students while the head football coach met with his team. Each group was asked to discuss causes of conflict, and to brainstorm possible solutions. When they were ready for a face-to-face meeting, they met with the school administration to work out an agreement on how to avoid further conflict. The students were asked to sign a contract with the school which spelled out their required behavior and attitude toward each other. They were given an assignment to write a five-page research paper on the opponent's culture.

Ms. Bates found considerable resources available to deal with the situation. There was increased recognition and understanding by faculty, staff and students of some of the underlying causes of the conflicts; there was willingness by all to work together to reduce the conflict. Dr. Bui had joined the Stuart staff as Assistant Principal, and Officer Santiago was a potential source of help. Still, it would take strong leadership, concerted action, and additional resources to move from continual crisis intervention to conflict prevention.

In September 1982, the seven ESL classes were re- located in three different halls of the school so that no more than two classes were adjacent. This helped to spread groups of non-English-speaking students into six locations before school and during lunches.

A Human Relations Committee was established with members from the administrative, teaching, and supporting staffs, as well as parents and students. The new committee organized sub- committees to start new projects to improve school spirit and relations among students. Suggestion boxes were put in the main office and in the cafeteria. One sub-committee was in charge of beautifying the school. Another sub-committee compiled an annotated bibliography of books and films about the various cultures and on human relations subjects; items were ordered for the school library.

In October 1982, Officer Santiago was assigned to work at the school one morning a week, and to be on call. He set up his office in the guidance suite. He sat with the students in the cafeteria during lunch. He wore civilian clothes to gain the students' acceptance. For the first time, every student had access to the police without fear. Many students came to him for help with their problems. His fluency in Spanish made it easier to gain the confidence of the Hispanic students. He became an invaluable resource person in handling conflict situations.

Ms. Bates established an Assembly Committee to ensure that all assemblies were relevant, interesting, and well supervised. She assumed additional administrative duties to share the work load, to get to know the students, and to be more visible. She helped supervise student activities. She went to all football games, both home and away, and attended other extra-curricular activities. She embraced any new activity or idea which could help the school. She volunteered to test pilot programs created by the county instructional services, and aggressively secured extra staff and funds for new programs.

One of the staff additions was Dr. Virginia Vertiz, who became Intercultural Relations Coordinator, specializing in youth employment. She conducted workshops for ESL students, teaching them the skills they needed to get jobs. She also found jobs for a significant number. Dr. Vertiz soon gained the trust of ESL students and helped them deal with other types of problems. She became part of the school's team of facilitators.

After a fight between Hispanic and American students on December 4, 1982, Ms. Bates called a meeting of Hispanic students to listen to their concerns. She asked Dr. Bui and Officer Santiago to facilitate the meeting. A similar meeting was called later for the American students involved in the fight. That was followed by a joint meeting between the two groups, with four adult facilitators present. The students from both sides were asked to discuss:

  1. the need for an integrated school; and
  2. the way to make ESL students feel accepted in the school community.

S.A.V.E. Established

On January 7, 1983 the two groups met again with Dr. Bui and Officer Santiago. This time the students arrived at a concrete plan of action:

  • the ESL students would try to attend the Snowball Dance on January 15th, come watch the ball games, and try out for track and soccer;
  • the student government would plan a one- day workshop, with help from the coaches, to teach ESL students the rules of the different games;
  • the students agreed to call each other by their first names, greet each other in school, and submit names of friends whom they thought could benefit from the inter-group dialogue;
  • the group would become the vehicle for mediation by bringing students together to bridge the communication gap; it would be called S.A.V.E. (Students against a Violent Environment); and
  • the existence of S.A.V.E. would be publicized to facilitate the group's operation.

In February 1983, the first S.A.V.E. meeting was called with representatives from the student government, Hispanics, Americans, and all students who had been involved in fights before winter vacation (Thais, Vietnamese, and blacks). During the meeting, the students brainstormed the causes of conflicts and suggested some solutions. A month later, the second S.A.V.E. meeting brought together students from seven ethnic groups which had had many confrontations in the past: white, black, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and Greek.

As additional fights occurred around spring vacation, mediation efforts were carried out, and the students involved agreed to join S.A.V.E. At the April S.A.V.E. meeting, the group discussed ideas for projects to get members involved in helping the school spirit. At the May meeting, students suggested organizing small group meetings the next year to reach out to all other ethnic and interest groups which might benefit from the open communication setting. They agreed to continue to be leaders and mediators, and to help the school prevent conflicts.

At the beginning of the 1983-84 school year, members of all ethnic groups were invited to participate in S.A.V.E. Small groups were created for each major ethnic group, and others were combined. The purpose of small group meetings was to identify inter-group as well as intra-group tensions. Large and small group meetings were held alternatively every two weeks. Membership in S.A.V.E. reached 150 by the end of the school year, and included all 19 major ethnic groups in the school. There were no serious conflicts during the 1983-84 school year.

S.A.V.E. officially became a school club in 1984-85 and elected its own officers. Its focus was changed to deal more with a core group of informal leaders to avoid pulling too many students out of classes for large group meetings. Social interaction, games, and role-playing were used more extensively. S.A.V.E., coordinating with the ESL department, targeted the special needs of the students from war-torn countries. It also initiated a problem-solving course on a pilot basis during 1983-84; this became an integral part of the curriculum in government classes.

An Oriental Garden was created by S.A.V.E. members in one of the school's inner courtyards. As the project progressed, student conflict lessened. Students who had previously fought were digging, raking, and trimming shrubbery side by side. Other members of the student body asked to be included.


At the time this article was originally written in early 1986, J.E.B. Stuart was not totally a conflict-free school. However, the environment had improved dramatically. The conflicts in the 1984-85 school year mostly involved first year students coming from intermediate schools where the environment was similar to what Stuart had been earlier. Thus, continuing attention to intercultural relations and the specialized problems of foreign students would still be needed, particularly since the Intercultural Relations Coordinator position had been dropped. Extending the Stuart program into intermediate and elementary schools appeared desirable.

The principal lessons which I draw from the J.E.B. Stuart case study, and set forth below, seem relevant not only for a troubled school environment, but for other kinds of potential conflict situations, particularly inter-cultural or inter-generational:

  • Lecturing, threatening, or punishing only alters undesirable student behavior patterns temporarily as long as underlying causes of the behavior are not addressed. In fact, these actions will probably exacerbate the problem.
  • The situation in Stuart only began to turn around when the administrators:
    • began to listen to the students and seek their cooperation;
    • promoted increased inter-cultural understanding among staff and faculty, American students, and foreign students; and
    • used conflict resolution techniques (mediation and facilitation) to deal with the fights.
  • The turn-around was assured when the foreign students were convinced that there were people at the school who cared about them and their problems, and who were able to help. The creation of the Intercultural Relations Coordinator position, and not requiring the incumbent to take disciplinary actions, was very important.
  • Creation of an organization like S.A.V.E. might not work in all schools, but obtaining student participation in planning and implementing improvements in the school environment would be essential. It would also be very helpful if the facilitators had already worked out most of their own internal conflicts.
  • A strong commitment by the administration is essential.

This article was based on interviews of the three individuals who were particularly involved in dealing with the ethnic conflict at J.E.B. Stuart High School (Dr. Bui, Dr. Vertiz, and Officer Santiago) and upon two manuscripts they had prepared. They contributed much to this article, but the presentation and the conclusions drawn are the author's.

Mr. Roush served 25 years with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), serving in 6 countries on 4 continents. Subsequently, he served 20 years as an independent consultant and trainer (in 55 countries) in the design, management, and evaluation of international development activities and in the resolution of conflict. He has been the editor of PEACE in Action since its inception in 1985.

It starts with the children.

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