As Norman Ospina, the school attendance clerk and a translator at Castlemont High School in East Oakland, crossed the courtyard on a crisp overcast fall morning, he spotted a young man he believed had been involved in a campus brawl on September 21. Ospina, whose students call him “Mr. O,” placed his index finger over his mouth, and nodded in the direction of the student on the other side of the courtyard. The student instantly revealed a smile that was visible clear across campus. “I told him my secret,” said Ospina—the comical story of why he goes by “Mr. O.”
Ospina let out a warm laugh, and continued to walk, greeting every student along the way. Ospina, only in his fourth week at the school, has already developed a rapport with many of the students. As he walked, he recalled what he had witnessed of the fight. He had taken a student out for a birthday lunch, he said, and when they returned he saw a crowd of students circling the fight. “There were 50-75 students gathered at the end of the hall,” said Opsina. “All I saw was punches being thrown.”
School officials said that the fight began when one group of students tossed an apple in the direction of another group. The seemingly small altercation grew when other students joined in and eventually, the incident turned into a much bigger racially-charged confrontation.
“It’s the Raza students versus the Polynesian students; and the Raza students versus the Black students,” said Sagnicthe Salazar, Castlemont’s dean of restorative discipline and school culture. Salazar’s job is to work with students and organizations to prevent violent incidents from occurring. In the wake of such occurrences, she serves as the disciplinarian on campus. “A lot of these issues stem from socio-economic conditions that the young people live in,” Salazar said.
“It didn’t start off as a racial incident at all, but it quickly escalated that way,” said Chinyere Tutashinda, who works at the campus’ youth center as the collaborative director for Youth Together, an organization that holds workshops on the “root causes” of injustices students face in schools and in society. “It escalated that way because the tension is there,” said Tutashinda. “And it’s not just there in the school—it’s there in the community, and the country.”
The 2012-13 school year also marks the return of Castlemont to being one big school. For the last eight years the campus was divided into was three separate schools. “Some of the young people that I talked to yesterday said that they think that’s one of the reasons—that people just don’t know each other,” said Tutashinda of the cause of the fight. “But it just takes time, and work.”
In response to the fight, volunteer peacekeepers and workshop leaders were welcomed to Castlemont’s campus throughout the last week. The goal of the volunteers was to make sure their presence was felt on campus, engage in dialogue with students in the hallways, and break up any friction that might occur between students. Last Tuesday, representatives from Allen Temple Baptist Church, California Youth Outreach, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth and a number of other organizations were present, working to “hold the space,” as Tutashinda said.
The diverse group of peacekeepers was strategically sprawled across the campus; all of them wearing white armbands, signifying unity with the students, many of whom had signed petitions to uphold the school’s values and promote peace on campus.
“I have family that goes here: one’s a senior, and one is a sophomore,” said Jabari Scott, a 25-year-old graduate of Castlemont who was standing at his volunteer post in a hallway, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and white armband. Scott said that he served as the student body president during his senior year at Castlemont; that same year he witnessed a student get shot in the neck in front of the school. “I’m ready for it to stop, personally,” said Scott about the violence in his neighborhood.
Tutashinda, who organized the volunteers, was surprised at how well the word about the school’s need for peacekeepers got around the community. “We have put out a mass email and asked people to forward it, to the point I got the email back!” she said as she let out a little laugh.
The peacekeeping volunteers were present for one week, and have left this week at the request of the students, who said they were ready to move on, said Tutashinda.
During a specially scheduled extended third period last Tuesday, members of Kids First Oakland and Youth Speaks, two organizations that focus on empowering young people, as well as a couple of freelance artists, lead students through midday workshops that addressed violence, oppression, and racism. School board member Alice Spearman spent the lunch period in the center of the Castlemont Knights’ courtyard, talking with students and administrators. “The issue isn’t a school issue,” said Spearman as she watched a competitive foursquare game between students. “It’s a community issue.”
Salazar, Tutashinda, and others within the Castlemont community say they are taking several measures to heal the school and the surrounding neighborhood. Some of these actions include circulating a peace petition, which asks students to maintain a peaceful campus, conducting a student survey that asks students what improvements they want to see in their school community. The administration also decided to do more parent outreach, which includes home visits to families by the school’s administration members, such as Salazar, over the weekend, and has discussed hosting town hall discussions on the topic of anti-violence measures that could be taken. Administrators are also coordinating one-on-one conversations between the students who were directly involved with the conflict and counselors from community organizations.
“We want to make sure that young folks and students who are being most affected are at the conversations that are central in continuing the plan,” said Tutashinda.
During Tuesday’s special lunch period, roughly a dozen teenagers divided themselves amongst special lunchtime activities, including foursquare, Twister, and a mobile karaoke machine. But the majority of students stayed on the periphery of the action, and ate their lunch in segmented groups.
“I feel like the great quote by Abe Lincoln, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’,” said student body co-president Dawn Mccladdie, as her schoolmates called her name over the karaoke machine’s booming loudspeaker, motioning for her to join them in an impromptu talent show.
“We allowed ourselves to divide, and we failed. Right now, we’re trying to pick up the pieces and restore what was broken,” said McCladdie. “As a Castlemont community, we need to get to know each other on a deeper level, because if we don’t know each other, there’s no way we can create change.”