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In Dearborn, Middle East Meets Middle West

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The dust-up in the lunchroom started with two boys trading menacing remarks. After one student shouted a slur about Arabs, it quickly escalated into a full-scale food fight.

Accounts of the cafeteria contretemps at Edsel Ford High School last December differ markedly--both in the particulars of what happened and what it said about intergroup relations in this fast-changing city. While some Arab-American activists depicted it as a "riot" in which ethnic barbs flew as fast as food, school officials say such exchanges were few and physical violence was minimal.

Yet in part because of these disagreements, the event's consequences have not been limited to the five student suspensions it produced. Instead, it set in motion a search for common ground that school and community leaders say is long overdue in a city that has now has one of the largest concentrations of Arab people and cultures outside the Middle East.

Following protests from Arab-Americans over the cafeteria incident, the Dearborn school board is pulling together a citywide task force "to create better communication and understanding." Board members say the fight--coupled with ethnically charged campaign literature during last fall's City Council elections--underscored the need for such an effort.

"What happened at Edsel Ford is just a symptom," school board member Jewel L. Morrison said. "It's time to get people together and talk about all the things we have in common."

About half of the 16,500 students in Dearborn's public schools are now of Arab descent, a proportion that has risen steadily over the past 20 years and is far higher than the Arab-American population in the city as a whole.

Cultures Collide in Schools

As is often the case, the public schools have become a place where cultures collide. To accommodate Middle Eastern customs, for example, school cafeterias here don't serve pork, schools offer physical education classes that are segregated by sex, and the district has one of the most extensive Arabic-English bilingual education programs in the country.

"The whole city has wrestled with this change, and it's been frightening for many of the older residents," said Ismael N. Ahmed, the executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, a local agency that assists Arab-Americans. "Much of this has been fought out in the educational arena."

At Edsel Ford High, Arab-American enrollment has gone from less than 5 percent at the start of this decade to 29 percent today, said Principal Gerald B. Dodd. The school's 1,340 students are drawn from neighborhoods stretching from the city's heavily Arab-American southeastern section to its largely non-Arab west end.

"It's where east meets west," said Superintendent Jeremy M. Hughes.

Pattern of Problems Alleged

Many at Edsel Ford deny that their school is rife with ethnic tension, and say the cafeteria incident was blown out of proportion. Nonetheless, in response to complaints from parents, a representative of the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee wrote Mr. Hughes a few weeks after the incident demanding better treatment.

In the December letter, Marvin Wingfield, the committee's director of education and outreach, described the fight as a riot and called it "the culmination of a series of problems at the school, which in turn reflect ethnic tensions of anti-Arab and anti-foreign attitudes in the community."

The letter urged school officials to hire more teachers and administrators of Arab descent, educate other employees about Arab culture, improve students' cross-cultural awareness, and translate the student code of conduct into Arabic.

Since then, Mr. Dodd and his staff have drawn up a plan that responds to those and other issues. It involves efforts to improve parent involvement, give students a bigger voice in school affairs, and broaden cultural understanding among students and staff members.

"I'm not ignoring the fact that we have some things that we should be working on," Mr. Dodd said.

Meanwhile, Arab-American leaders are unsure of what to expect from the district-level task force. Alex Shami, the only school board member of Arab descent, voiced skepticism about the panel, for which the board is still soliciting members.

"What's the task of the task force?" Mr. Shami said last week. "I'm still not clear about that."

Mr. Ahmed, on the other hand, sounded more optimistic. "The practical content of what they're going to do and how it's going to affect the schools is still not clear," he said. "But this committee seems to be a new page, so I'm hoping for the best."

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