THERE should have been 1,168 noisy students filling the halls and classrooms of Medford High School on Dec. 15. But except for a handful of tense administrators and a few students and teachers, Medford High in Medford, Mass., was virtually empty.
A racially triggered brawl had erupted in the school cafeteria on Dec. 10. Fighting between black and white students quickly spread. Dozens of state troopers and police officers clad in riot gear were called in to restore order. Fifteen students were arrested.
The superintendent of Medford schools, Philip Devaux, closed the school for several days. United States Department of Justice officials arrived on the scene as fact finders, along with experienced mediators from the Massachusetts attorney general's office.
A quiet suburban town of just under 60,000 people about 10 miles north of Boston, Medford is now being forced to ask itself two questions: How closely does an ugly racial incident at the high school reflect attitudes throughout the town? And how do educators at the high school improve racial understanding?
"The incident took me by surprise," says Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn, who also chairs the School Committee. "There had been some uneasiness at community meetings last year about kids, but not an indication of this kind of problem."
Some teachers, parents, and students - both black and white - insist that the signs of trouble were already there at the high school. Despite some efforts by administrators to resolve racial charges and countercharges involving white teachers' attitudes and allegedly excessive defensiveness by some black students, some teachers and parents say dealing with racial issues was never a priority at the school.
In fact, the high school experienced a similar racial incident in 1977. "Not much has changed," says a teacher who has taught for nine years at Medford.
"Everybody knew there was tension," says Daiena Masciarelli, president of the student council, who said that once the football season ended and the focal point of school enthusiasm faded, "a lot of friendships seemed to end."
As for the incident itself, she says, "It started out just as a fight and grew from there into a black and white battle. I think society has put this racial thing on us. To me race doesn't matter; we should judge people on their minds, not their skins, but I don't think a lot of adults believe that."
About 15 percent of the student body at Medford is black; the rest is almost all white. There are four black teachers. A black senior, who did not want to be identified, says, "There are white teachers here who make racial slurs and treat black kids differently. Everybody knows this, but how are you going to take that out of some teacher's head when its been there for forty years?"
Miss Masciarelli criticized the school's curriculum for not having enough material on different cultures.
A black mother of a Medford junior sat in the superintendent's office last week after the incident and said she had never seen her son so upset. "He's got lots of white friends," she says, and they're on the phone now wondering if they can speak to each other in public when they go back to school."
On Dec. 14, Superintendent Devaux held a community-wide meeting to assure parents that "we are working to create a safe and controlled school environment before reopening." He said "20 actions" were being implemented, including work by a team of state mediators who are meeting with students and teachers.
"What we will be trying to do" says Alice Comack, the head of the mediation team, "is not find out who was right or wrong, but to listen to them to get an understanding of what is bothering them." The first step was separate confidential sessions with black and white student leaders, then a joint session before school reopened Dec. 18 for seniors and juniors only.
"Mediation seeks to create an environment," says Denis Gray, one of the mediators, "in which future relationships can be improved. We don't suggest solutions, or try to change the human heart. We work out what the people can live with."
In the sessions, the mediators listen as long as needed to the students and then move toward more precise definitions of terms and the meaning of words. "People want to be heard," Mr. Gray says, "and when they realize they are being heard, they are being empowered and will be more willing to find solutions."
One of the issues at Medford was the confused racial significance of the caps many students were wearing.
"Some kids just want to wear the [baseball-style caps] just because they like a team," Masciarelli says, "but if you wear a UNLV cap [University of Nevada at Las Vegas, nationally prominent in basketball and controversial because of recruiting standards], some people say it means `us niggers love violence.' "
Devaux has now banned all of the caps from classrooms.
"In the community at large," Mayor McGlynn says, "all these racial problems aren't going to be cleared up in one week. I don't think we have talked to each other enough to build a respect for different cultures. Some of the adults have to stop making racial and ethnic slurs, and learn to respect people and work together."