SENIORS attending South Boston High School today will be greeted with metal detectors at the doors and a doubled force of security officers.
Because of simmering racial tensions that resulted in a raucous street fight at "Southie" high on Thursday, city and school officials are stepping up safety measures and phasing in the return of students to the classroom over the next few days. Last week's incident - in which more than 200 white and black youths hurled invectives and rocks and other objects at one another - sent five people to the hospital, including Mayor Raymond Flynn, whose hand was hit by a brick. Three people were arrested, two of whom were not students at the school.
In the neighborhood that was the center of ethnic hostility in the early 1970s when court-ordered busing began, city officials are making valiant efforts to avoid a repeat of an ugly period in Boston's history. The event comes when Boston is at a crossroads, as Mr. Flynn's nine-year reign ends.
City Council members disagree over what Thursday's conflict will mean for the city's future.
Councilor Charles Yancey, who is black, sounded a positive note. "I think it's really the beginning of the death knell of the politics of exclusion, racism, and sexism in Boston. This has served to mobilize not only the elected officials, but the community as well," he said after a special meeting called Friday.
"The missing story here is the tremendous progress that has been made. There have been relatively few incidents at the high school in the last 10 years," he added.
"It was a mini-riot," snapped Councilor James Kelly, who represents South Boston and is white. "It was waiting to happen. It was worse than anything we saw in the '70s. No one's been able to get a grasp on how to [handle] racial issues."
While officials try to ease fears in the neighborhood, white South Boston residents and black leaders point fingers at each other, the mayor, and other leaders. Even Mr. Yancey and Mr. Kelly almost came to blows on Thursday.
The melee's cause is unclear, though racial tension has lingered in the white, mostly Irish community ever since blacks began being bused in. Recent events have stirred up discord, however. Last month, a white woman was allegedly beaten by a black man near her home. And at a community meeting early last week, adult whites used racial epithets to denounce blacks. Many say the adults encouraged the school fight.
"The grown-ups were saying, `We want the blacks and Hispanics out of here,' " says Councilor David Scondras, who is white. "Why were we surprised [a few] days later when that was echoed at the high school?"
According to Flynn and School Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones, among others, residents' fears were prompted by exaggerated accounts of students carrying weapons to school. Also, Flynn says, South Boston residents felt police were giving priority to crimes committed by whites on blacks. "I just ask the people of this city ... that they deal with factual information," Flynn says.
Some black leaders say the incident smacks of animosity they faced in 1974 when Federal District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered that Boston schools be desegregated. "It was all the same tactics used before with all the same people," says Paul Parks, who is black and is the chairman of the Boston School Committee.
Yancey, however, says comparing the confrontation to the '70s is somewhat unfair. "Today we have a different group of elected officials who are more enlightened and tolerant, and the city is more than 41 percent people of color," he said. "We're in a better position to address the level of tolerance and shared values for higher-quality education, and to end the violence."
Political observers say the conflict comes at an inconvenient time as Flynn gets ready to become ambassador to the Vatican. Although some may disagree, Flynn has been credited by many with efforts to promote racial harmony. In South Boston, for example, he pushed for integration of public-housing projects.
"It's an odd legacy for Flynn to have," says Lou DiNatale of the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "His single greatest contribution was having calmed those [racial] sentiments and having created the impression of a united city. For this to be popping out on the edge of his leaving has got to be a little disconcerting for Flynn."
Friday, Ms. Harrison-Jones released plans for heading off racial troubles at the school:
* A three-day phase-in of the return of students, beginning with seniors today and ending with ninth- and 10th-graders Wednesday.
* Hand-held metal detectors will be used.
* Five more security guards will take up duty. This doubles the force.
* Lockers will be searched for weapons.
* Two hotlines will be established.