Increasing tensions at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School between immigrant and non-immigrant students prompted administrators this week to hold a one-day workshop for 25 students aimed at raising awareness about cultural intolerance and prejudice.
While administrators had already planned a two-day retreat on the same topic for September, a fight in a school hallway two weeks ago between a Brazilian student and another student forced the issue to the forefront with just a week remaining in the academic year.
Both students involved in the fight, who are male, were suspended from school for two days.
The rise in tensions was also flagged by teacher Matt Malowski, who leads the high school program for English language learners (ELL). Mr. Malowski spoke up last week at a faculty meeting and described some of the hostility that his students face on campus.
"Matt Malowski mentioned he was very concerned about the abusive language he was hearing directed at his students," said high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan.
"We've always had concerns about the assimilation of ESL [English as a second language] students into the school, even foreign exchange students," she added. "This can be a very hard place to move to if you're not from here. It is not an inclusive environment for new people."
Mrs. Regan said there are approximately 100 students at the regional high school who come from another country, accounting for 12 per cent of the enrollment. Most are from Brazil, but others come from El Salvador, Liberia, Mexico and Uruguay. About 60 of those students take part in the school's ELL program, receiving English instruction and gradually mainstreaming into regular classes.
As recently as last month with the release of the annual school improvement plan, student council members had raised a red flag, alerting the school community to the growing problem. "One of our concerns this year through student council and student leadership classes are the incidents of discrimination against some students in our school," they wrote.
After interviewing students who had emigrated from Brazil and other countries to the Island, they concluded: "We have found that many of them suffer from rudeness, insult and isolation at our high school."
They called for a retreat that would define the scope of the problem and focus on race, culture and ways to improve the situation at the school. Mrs. Regan and guidance director Michael McCarthy have already scheduled a retreat for 60 to 70 high school students on Sept. 27 and 28 at the Sailing Camp Park.
But with the fight earlier this month and the urging of Mr. Malowski, they decided to take an initial step and invite a smaller cross-section of students to a workshop on Tuesday. The workshop will be facilitated by Mr. McCarthy and special needs teacher Tony Lombardi.
"This is in no way meant to solve the entire problem, but it's a seminal approach to getting kids to talk to each other," Mrs. Regan said.
Duncan Pickard, a high school junior, took part in Tuesday's discussion and said the payoff was a greater awareness about what it is like to live in a foreign country and adjust to unknown customs and language.
"Talking to the kids from Brazil, we got an appreciation of the things they have to go through," he said.
Mr. Malowski asked students in the Tuesday meeting to imagine they were suddenly dropped into Russia and needed to survive. The exercise helped Mr. Pickard empathize with the stress faced by immigrants and the reasons for their behavior.
"A lot of it comes from the language difference," said the junior. "Any immigrant who comes here is going to be put in the ESL class, and at lunch, they'll sit with the kids in their class and the ones who speak their language."
But the suspicions and discord stem from these moments.
"At lunch, they're talking in Portuguese, you don't know whether they're talking about you or talking about the weather. There's a fear of the unknown," said Mr. Pickard.
Yesterday morning, some of Mr. Malowski's students took a break from their exam preparations to talk about the tense feelings, their experiences with discrimination and their dreams of being accepted by their fellow students.
"I haven't had much discrimination, but I think that the kids are trying to be cool when they call other kids' names," said Lucas do Carma, a junior who participated in Tuesday's workshop.
Many of the students said the school bus is frequently a setting for slurs and insults aimed at immigrants.
"I know a Brazilian who was coming off the school bus, and an American called him the N-word," said one of Mr. Malowski's students.
That anecdote brought forth others.
Sophomore Francine De Paula said, "The Brazilians sit in the front of the bus." When some students exit the bus, they throw crumpled up paper at them, she said.
As you hear these stories, you can begin to sense their growing anger and frustration.
"I'm more comfortable to speak Portuguese, but they think we're gangsters because we hang out together," said Mr. do Carma.
Both Wellington Oliveira and Ravair da Costa urged the school to increase efforts to bring the two groups together. "There should be more activities joining the Brazilians and Americans," said Mr. da Costa.
Even Mr. Pickard criticized the school administration for putting the ELL classroom in such a remote corner of the building. "The room itself is in a secluded wing of the high school," he said.
But while the high school is grappling with how to handle conflicts between immigrant students and the so-called Americans (some Brazilians on the Island are naturalized U.S. citizens and many of the children were born in the states), the problem is hardly confined to the campus in Oak Bluffs.
"Mounting tensions in the community have come into the school," Mrs. Regan said.
Mr. Pickard noted that the incidents of discrimination at school are rooted in similar feelings held in some parts of the wider Island community.
The influx of Brazilian immigrants to the Vineyard has grown in the last few years. Public agencies and others now estimate that the number of Brazilians living on the Island is between 2,000 and 2,500, about 10 per cent of the year-round population.
"This is just another historical wave of immigration. It isn't anything new," said Mrs. Regan. "Sadly, what also seems to keep repeating is the animosity, but it's going both ways. It isn't entirely Island people being bigoted."
Mrs. Regan believes that the fight at the high school actually started with a dispute at the YMCA-run teen center, which opened earlier this year in downtown Oak Bluffs.
The youth director for YMCA of Martha's Vineyard, Eric Adams, told the Gazette this week that Brazilian teenagers have just begun going to the center in the last two months.
"When a couple Brazilian kids come in, the [other] kids don't feel threatened, but when larger numbers of Brazilian kids come in, the American kids feel a little uncomfortable," said Mr. Adams. "I've started to see kids segregate themselves."
There have been no fights at the teen center, he added. "Some very minor verbal interactions, but nothing physical," said Mr. Adams.
Mr. Adams speculated that the troubles, while not uncommon in any American city where newly arrived immigrants are making a home, might spring from latent racism.
"Would we have this going on if these people were Irish or if there wasn't another color of skin?" he said. "There's some racial profiling that's going on here and a lack of knowledge about Brazilian families."
Giselia Coelho, a freshman in Mr. Malowski's class, said she and a friend were walking last September on a street in Vineyard Haven when someone driving by in a car threw trash at them and insulted them because they are Brazilian.
Back at the high school, Mr. Pickard said that some students who befriend Brazilians or other immigrants are ridiculed. "There's a stigma attached to making friends. They call you a zilly-lover. It's a slur," he said.
As disturbing as these incidents are, Mrs. Regan and Mr. McCarthy view them as a vital learning opportunity. "What the fight allowed us to do is address this head-on," said the principal.
"It's been enlightening for some kids, especially for ones who don't get harassed and didn't know this was going on," Mr. McCarthy said. "It's a way to become aware of the school culture, the ‘isms, the way people discriminate, why they do it and the impact on kids in the school."
Other responses are in the offing. Mr. Adams is considering hosting a Brazilian culture night at the teen center and wants to make sure some Brazilian teenagers join the center's 13-member board next fall.
"I know we're from a different country, but we don't want to be trouble. We want peace, but some Americans look for trouble," said Mr. da Costa. "They should stop and try to be our friends and know us."