`Tempers very high’ after fight at RHS | PostIndependent.com

`Tempers very high’ after fight at RHS

Last Thursday at Rifle High School, a fight between a group of 13 Anglo and Latino students began with words – and ended with fists. The entire episode, which took place at the end of the school’s lunch break, lasted a total of one minute.

“Yes, there were blows thrown, and yes, some students got knocked down,” said Garfield School District Re-2 superintendent Gary Pack, “but order was restored quickly.”

In addition to the 13 students implicated, one additional student was suspended on Friday for arriving at school with “inappropriate writing on his arm,” explained Pack.

“Tempers are very high,” he said. “We are siding with safety by clearing the air and suspending these students for three to five days until we can look over all their statements and meet with their parents. It takes times to hear everyone’s side of the story.”

Now, Rifle High School students, teachers, officials and parents are facing the repercussions of what John Miller, the Rifle police officer assigned to Rifle High School, says is the first run-in he’s witnessed in his three years patrolling the school. Eleven boys and three girls have received out-of-school suspensions ranging from three to five days. Miller said though no one was seriously harmed, two students were checked for injuries suffered in the fight.

“This is not a common occurrence,” said Miller, who is usually the sole officer patrolling the school. Since the scuffle, from one to three additional officers have been on site before and after school and during lunch – times when conflicts may arise.

Miller and Pack warned that during episodes like this, rumors can get out of hand. Two rumors – that more than 60 students participated in the fight, and that a student was in a coma – are completely untrue. Miller said that since Thursdays’ altercation, “There have been a lot of rumors about fights happening here and there.”

“It’s important not to inflame the conflict by passing on rumors,” Pack said.

Name-calling escalates

Miller said the fight began as students were filing back into school hallways following lunch at around 12:25 p.m.

“It started with people calling each other names,” Miller said, “and they weren’t necessarily racial names. Basically, it was people being mean to each other.”

With so many students in the hallways, the name-calling soon escalated into a heated disagreement between a group of Anglo and Latino students, and that’s when punches were thrown. Miller isn’t aware of any weapons used in the fight.

“Kids started picking sides,” said Miller, “and it took off from there.”

Pack said he’s learned that a group of 18- to 25-year-olds in the local Latino community have been deeply disturbed by the Aug. 19 ruling that determined Michael Stagner was legally insane when he shot seven people in Rifle, killing four, in July 2001. As a result, according to Pack, some teens have become equally upset about the ruling, something that did not come as a surprise to school officials.

“This tension has been growing, and that’s reflected at school,” said Pack. “We were prepared to address that tension early on.”

`A community issue’

Pack said that this is more of a community issue than just a school issue, and one that concerns changing demographics and people of all types learning to live together.

“The whole demographic in Rifle is changing,” said Pack. “This is a town that’s been predominantly Anglo. In five to 10 years, the majority will be Hispanic and Latino. The dynamics are changing. People need to perceive reality.”

Pack said the district is addressing the conflict headfirst.

“We are reaching out to all sides,” Pack said. “We’re not going to ignore this. There are 920 kids at Rifle High School. They’re great big folks. We’re not going to keep kids separate. These kids are going to work it out.

“We have a conflict mediation team that is talking with parents and with students. We’re going to have order, and we’re going to have respect for one another. It doesn’t matter if we’re dealing with an Anglo student or a Hispanic student. We’re going to learn to live together,” he said.

Miller said separate meetings with Anglo and Latino parents have been held.

“Clearly, they’re upset,” he said. “They’ve only heard one side of the story – their side.”

School officials now want both groups of parents to meet together. All of the students involved will meet together this Friday morning before school.

“We’re involving (Rifle High School principal) Dave Smucker, school counselors, outside mediators if need be – and most likely, all three,” said Pack. “This is not going to get resolved in a few days or a few months. This is about building respect and order in our school, our district and our community.”

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