Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bourassa students write off beating to a few bad apples

But Pearson teacher says tensions won't end 'until a kid gets killed in the park'


Classes resume today at Lester B. Pearson High School in Montreal North. Tensions in the neighbourhood remain high after Wednesday's attack.

Classes resume today at Lester B. Pearson High School in Montreal North. Tensions in the neighbourhood remain high after Wednesday's attack.

The general consensus yesterday at two Montreal North schools in the eye of a public tempest was that the swarming was an isolated incident.

Parents, teachers and students called last week's vicious beating of two white girls at the hands, shoes and boots of a group of girls from another school - most of them black - a rare occurrence between two institutions that have had civil relations over the years.

"Same thing happened at my high school when I was growing up in LaSalle," said Mike, the parent of two children at Lester B. Pearson High School who spoke on condition that his full name not be used. "Guys would come over to fight us.

"There have always been these kinds of problems."

But the reassurances come as little comfort to many parents and students in an era where the rise of street gangs, guns and YouTube can quickly transform an innocuous schoolyard tussle into tragedy. In addition, one teacher said, parents can now see school violence for themselves on the Net, heightening their fears.

And the impetus for this beating - one of the victims has admitted to screaming a racial epithet at a group of black girls in response to having ice cubes flung at her - is an example of the racial, linguistic and socio-economic tensions that are unspoken and tolerated between the two solitudes at these schools, and everywhere else, observers said.

That relations are generally calm between the two schools is almost surprising. Lester B. Pearson High School is among the largest in the English Montreal School Board with 1,500 students, "95 per cent of whom are Italian," one teacher estimated. Many of these students are bused in to the Montreal North school from the more affluent Rivière des Prairies, and they are educated in English.

Less than one kilometre away is the even larger École secondaire Henri Bourassa, with 2,000 students from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, educated in French, and most from Montreal North, which is among the poorest districts in the city.

The average household income is $37,000, well below the Quebec average of $50,000.

Montreal North has been classified by Statistics Canada as one of the city's hot spots for crime, where the incidence of violence is significantly higher than in other neighbourhoods.

"They hired security guards to chase off the gang members who used to hang out by the exits in their luxury cars," Grade 11 Henri Bourassa student Daniel said. "The girls used to run out to see them. They still come around, but they turn the music down lower, and they stay farther from school."

Yet incidents between the schools are relatively rare. Three years ago, a student at Lester B. Pearson used the same racial epithet and provoked the rage of more than 200 students at Bourassa, who gathered outside Lester B. Pearson and chanted their high school's slogan in a threatening show of force.

Students at Henri Bourassa, both black and white, wrote last week's incident off to a few bad apples. Racial tension is rare, most said. If anything, it would be more of a "French against English" thing.