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Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA -- They salsa dance and try Indian food. They research the nations of the world and discuss the dress, the religion and the traditions.

Their motivation is not only to broaden their own knowledge, but to help Santa Clarita appreciate its expanding demographic and cultural makeup rather than allow seeds of hatred to take root.

Participants gather under the umbrella of the city's Human Relations Forum, formed in 1994 in the aftermath of a violent race-related fight on a local high school campus. Since then, a fluid forum membership -- including as many as 80 -- has worked within City Hall, schools and law enforcement to foster leadership that helps to steady the transition as more Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and Middle Easterners settle in a suburb long seen as a white haven.

"We're not just talking about the type of thing where people go to the podium and say we all need to get along," forum member Spence Leafdale said.

"We're talking about looking at our diverse community in a positive way, recognizing what we have and how fortunate we are to have that and to embrace it."

The forum has just kicked off A Season of Diversity, its annual program including cultural performances, hard-hitting panel discussions on racial issues, related children's story times and a summit for youth leaders to help them convey the message at their schools.

"What we're really trying to achieve is to promote cultural understanding, to expose everyone to the different nationalities (and) ethnicities that make up our city," said Adele MacPherson, the city's community service superintendent.

And a key goal lies below the surface.

"Certainly, their mission is to celebrate differences while stamping out prejudice," City Manager Ken Pulskamp said.

The effort gained steam two years ago when Valencia High School administrators were accused of ignoring racism complaints leveled by four African-American students.

The four claimed that they were victims of racial insults and that drawings of Confederate flags, swastikas and iron crosses were visible on campus. Hart Union High School District officials denied claims that they allowed the activity, but eventually agreed to a $300,000 settlement.

The incident put a spotlight on the district whose faculty is overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white while 44 percent of the student body represents various minorities. Overall, 69 percent of the Santa Clarita Valley population was non-Hispanic white in 2005, a 6 percent drop since 1990.

A deeper look shows a communitywide chasm. All but a handful of the area's more than 40 locally elected officials are non-Latino white. But Leafdale insists that's not necessarily a sign of a community that shuns minorities.

"Look around our community and see who has the key jobs," he said.

He points to sheriff's Capt. Anthony La Berge, an African-American who serves essentially as the city's police chief. City Parks Commissioner Ed Redd, active in community youth programs, also is black. Hart district Superintendent Jaime Castellonos is Latino, as is Matt Gil, assistant chief in the Los Angeles County Fire Department who serves as city fire chief.

While Santa Clarita City Hall employment roughly reflects the city's ethnic makeup, school districts have struggled to hire minorities.

Greg Lee, who is African-American, is the Hart district's diversity coordinator, a position created after the Valencia High complaints.

"When I came in, that was being established as a big goal -- to increase the minority representation among the teaching staff, the staff as a whole," said Lee, a former junior high administrator. "It's proven very, very challenging."

Lee contacted education departments at roughly 20 universities in hope of forming partnerships that would point "teaching candidates of color" to the district, he said. "No luck," he noted. "It's tough all over."

In researching, he found a decline in the numbers of African-American and Latino students going into education -- both good and bad news, he said. Apparently these students instead are seeking higher-paying corporate jobs.

He also found that while minority teaching candidates -- particularly blacks -- are attracted to the district, the area's African-American population amounts to just 2.5 percent, making it tough for some to make the move.

"You're not just selling the Hart district; that's an easy sell. But when they think about relocating their young family here, they think again about what happens after school -- their social life."

Some minority students say they feel some isolation, Lee said.

"When I talk to students of color and ask what they do for recreation, they say they leave the valley to enjoy their interests. They don't feel they have the social outlets. I think the city makes a strong effort, but we're kind of at a crossroads," Lee said.

Brian Hunter, 26, of Canyon Country is the son of a white father and an African-American mother. He has lived in a number of Southern California communities and seen various levels of racial tension. Santa Clarita, he said, lies around the halfway point. While he's never been pulled over for "driving while black," which he said happened more than once when he lived in Ventura County, he does notice subtle reactions from whites.

"Sometimes I'm definitely on guard. There's a look or an attitude. A woman will clutch her purse a little tighter," he said. "They're vague gestures."

Aside from planning social events, the city's forum members help mediate cases of racial tension, member Jonathan Kraut said.

When an African-American family in Newhall complained that city and sheriff's officials ignored their reports of racist threats, forum members mediated, Kraut said.

"We brought all the parties together -- the sheriff's captain, people from the city, people from their neighborhood -- and tried to get everyone connected," he said. "We brought them together to clarify and solve the issue. We got consensus on what we need to do. The Sheriff's Department is working with them specifically in the apartment complex. The city's aware; the neighbors are aware."

Eleven hate crimes -- eight of them race-related -- were reported in 2006 in the Santa Clarita Valley -- among more than 500 cases with 594 victims countywide, including 137 in the San Fernando Valley, according to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

Sheriff's Capt. La Berge, a 20-year resident, was named to head the local sheriff's station in December. He said every community has racists, though he's never experienced discrimination in Santa Clarita and wonders whether some complaints are from people who are "hypersensitive."

"If I get poor service at a restaurant, I'm not going to assume it's because of my skin color; I'm going to think it's just poor service," he said. "That's not to say when there is a hate incident, it isn't serious. It's very serious, but of the incidents reported here, you can see the same thing anywhere in the U.S. Hate crimes are far lower here than in some of the surrounding communities."

Recorded as the most frequent report in the Hart district's "Culturally Insensitive and Bias-Motivated Incidents" was name-calling in junior high school.

That, said Leafdale, is a sign of a normal town, not an indicator of racism in the schools.

"Kids are generally pretty cruel to each other. That's not going to change, whether a kid is black or white or fat or wears braces," he said.

Fourteen-year-old Carlos Rivera's mother was born in Mexico; his father in El Salvador. The family lives in Canyon Country, where Carlos is an eighth-grader at Sierra Vista Junior High.

"I've been called racist names," said Carlos, who counts non-Hispanic white, black and Latino kids among his friends. "Sometimes when I'm at the mall, white guys will look at you funny, or they'll like hit your shoulder when you're walking.

"But it's stupid. I was born in America. I have a different skin color, but that doesn't matter."

A quality public school system and a low crime rate brought Erma Montez and her husband to Saugus to raise their three sons. Both second-generation Mexican-Americans, the couple didn't think twice about settling in a predominantly white community.

"We lived in the (San Fernando) Valley, but my husband was working up here so we looked around and found some nice neighborhoods," Montez said.

On the first day of school, Montez felt a little out of place as parents chatted while dropping off their kids.

"I kind of felt I had to maybe work a little harder to fit in," she said. "It wasn't like anyone was mean. They probably were as nervous about meeting me as I was about them."

Leafdale bristles when he hears the term "white flight" attached to Santa Clarita, which experienced a housing boom in the 1970s when busing was ordered to integrate San Fernando Valley schools.

Far more significant in the growth and subsequent booms, which have since quintupled the population to some 250,000, was housing that was affordable without moving too far from Los Angeles.

"If anyone thinks otherwise, they're wrong," he said. "It was the cost of housing, the easy commute to L.A. Now houses aren't so affordable, and the traffic is bad. But it's proven itself a great place to live -- good schools, great people."


(661) 257-5251


photo, chart


Clarence Ross leads some children in African drumming during a program at the Canyon Country Jo Anne Darcy Library. With an expanding demographic and cultural makeup in Santa Clarita, the city's Human Relations Forum is looking to help steady the transition.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer


Santa Clarita's diversity

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; 2005 American Community Survey, Hart Union High School District, State Department of Education

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 9, 2007

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