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Clash of Cultures at a Virginia School: Students Reflect 'Problems in Society'

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Falls Church, Va--Falls Church High School, located in this Virginia suburb of Washington, is not a school known for its racial and ethnic tensions. If anything, the school is noteworthy among the mostly white suburban schools here for its diverse and peaceful blending of cultures.

Of the 1,300 students at the school, 63 percent are white, the principal, Harry Holsinger, estimates. Another 22 percent are Asian, 8 percent are Hispanic, and 7 percent are black. They come not only from upper middle-class homes, but also from those of poor refugee and minority families who are making their way, rung by rung, up the economic ladder.

"For the most part, people do get along here," says Suzette Ruffino, a sophomore at the school. "In the hallways, you would see things--like people from different groups talking to one another--that you would not expect to see."

At most, Mr. Holsinger says, two to three fistfights a year might erupt. And both students and other staff members say teachers make an effort to include discussions of such topics as prejudice, racism, and the civil-rights movement in class.

"All in all," Mr. Holsinger says, "I think we have a pretty safe environment."

Yet Falls Church, like many similar schools around the country, is not immune to the kinds of subtle and overt acts of prejudice that educators say are on the rise among the nation's young.

The targets of some of the hostility here tend to be Asian students, most of whom are immigrants themselves or the sons and daughters of refugees from Southeast Asia.

"We just don't like them," Joe Brown, a sophomore, says matter of factly during a lunch period in the school's cafeteria. "And there's so many of them, you just can't get away. We need to bring back segregation."

In discussing the subject, Joe and his other friends at the lunchtable--most of them white sophomore boys--are quick to use such epithets as "gooks," "chinks," and "spics."

The boys sit across the lunchroom from Daniel Nguyen, a sophomore who was born in Vietnam. Daniel's lunch companions are all Asian juniors and sophomores.

"The Americans are always making fun of the way we talk," he says, having been designated by the group as spokesman. "Everyone says we're troublemakers."

Tensions between the Asians and whites erupted in a fight earlier this year in front of the school building. It is difficult now, those here say, to determine who started what and whether--as some students claim but administrators deny--there were weapons involved.

The fracas was quickly broken up by staff members; the local police were called in as a precaution, and Mr. Holsinger and other administrators set about afterward to openly discuss the tensions involved on the school loudspeakers and in classrooms.

"At no point during this was I concerned that the student body was going to polarize along racial lines," says the principal, who as a school administrator in the 1960's and early 1970's saw disturbances on a much larger scale.

"There are a small group of kids who I think feel threatened by people that are different from themselves," he says. "Whenever you get a new infusion of kids, people have to adjust to the new kids and their values. And the latest wave of immigrants here has been from Southeast Asia."

Open hostilities between the cultures at Falls Church High "die down and then start up," Suzette8Ruffino says.

"It doesn't stop," she adds.

Underneath the surface, some minority students say, is the kind of subtle--and often unspoken--prejudice that rarely gets the attention of administrators and teachers.

"With the white kids," says Eric Smith, a senior who is black, "you can go up to them and talk to them and they'll talk to you. But when their friends come up, it's like they don't want to know you."

"We got some prejudiced parents here, I know that," says Eric's luncheon companion, Darnell Stewart, also a black senior.

"Like with black-and-white couples," he says, "they'll tell their kids to 'stick to your own kind."'

Other minority teenagers here say that those of their groups who "act white"--meeting the high-achieving, middle-class norms of white students--are better accepted.

"Like the Spanish people who act white," says Scott Needham, a white senior, gesturing toward a Hispanic lunch companion, "they get along."

"The Koreans are always cool," adds Joe Brown. "We're friends with a couple."

Discussing the subject in his office, Mr. Holsinger says he feels the resurgence of prejudice in and outside of schools is a reflection of deeper problems in the society at large.

"I think some of this has been fostered by the times we live in," he says. "Many people are being focused on what's in it for them, and that can translate to negative racial attitudes and negative attitudes toward everybody else who doesn't measure up to what you want them to be."

But the principal adds that he believes "young people, including teenagers, are far more tolerant of differences than the population at large."

"And that gives me some reason for optimism," he says.

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