School on edge 

With the issue of school violence again capturing the nation’s attention, parents of Arab-American students are raising concerns about racial tensions and violence at a Detroit high school.

In a statement released last week, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee issued a statement regarding recent conflicts at Chadsey High School on the city’s west side.

"ADC is concerned the situation has become extremely grave and that the potential for serious violence and injury is very real," warned the statement released by the metro area civil rights group. "A number of Arab-American families are now reluctant to send their children back to this school because of fears for their safety."

The situation boiled over when a melee erupted as school let out for spring break March 29. According to Imad Hamad, regional director for the ADC, about 50 students were involved in the brawl that spilled onto neighboring streets. Police were called to break it up.

At the behest of the ADC, a meeting was called that included the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, school district officials and the Detroit Police Department.

"I was impressed by the Arab leadership," said police Inspector Gerard Simon of the city’s Special Enforcement Section. "They were not only concerned about their kids; they were also open to the fact that problems could come from both sides."

The tensions, said Simon, were the result of two cultures colliding.

"You have more conservative, newly arrived Arabs clashing with an urban, black culture," observed Simon.

Most of the roughly 100 Arab students are Iraqi refugees who emigrated here within the past four years, said Hamad. The total school population is about 900.

The overarching problem, said Simon, was one of disrespect – to the extent that some African-American students were snatching "head wrappings" from Arab-American girls.

"For the life of me, I can’t understand how students can walk around school disrespecting other people," said Simon.

According to the ADC’s Hamad, fights have been occurring at the school for more than a year, with trouble escalating in the weeks prior to spring break.

The ADC statement, while lauding the cooperative atmosphere that existed at the April 19 meeting, is highly critical of Chadsey Principal Alexis Rowan. Of particular concern is the fact that, on the first day following spring break, at least 11 Arab-American students showed up at school only to be told they were suspended – including girls who they say were only spectators at the brawl. Three African-American students were also suspended, according to Inspector Simon.

The disproportionate punishment, said Hamad, "reversed the progress that had been made." Adding to the problem, he added, were comments from Rowan, the principal. According to the ADC statement, she downplayed the violent incidents, saying it was simply the result of some young men "playing tough guys"; she also repeatedly described some of the Arab-American students in the school as "guests." Rowan refused comment Monday. Calls to Detroit Public Schools officials dealing with the issue were not returned.

The ADC is proposing a number of actions to help defuse the situation, including a schoolwide assembly to allow students to address causes of tension and cultural sensitivity training for students, staff, faculty and security personnel at the school.

More by Curt Guyette

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