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The skies were heavy with rain, and it was just starting to sprinkle as hundreds of students spilled into the Arcadia High School parking lot. It's a place normally reserved for students' vehicles; Acuras, Cherokees and the occasional Jaguar are not uncommon.
That last Friday of March, however, the students were not admiring cars. Kids pushed their way to the front of the crowd, trying to catch a glimpse as two boys--one Hispanic, the other white--shoved each other. Punches and epithets were thrown, thunder crackled, rain poured down. "Literally, everything broke loose," recalls one combatant.
The olive-tree-lined campus of Arcadia--nucleus of the secure and genteel neighborhood of the same name--was having a street fight.
Despite the downpour, the action kept moving the way sparks jump across dry brush--groups of kids punching and shoving and being pulled apart. Just as one skirmish would break up, another would begin a few feet away.
By the time the 15 police cars reached the scene, most of the fighting had dissipated. A group of kids was rounded up and taken to the school office; 21 would later be suspended for fighting.
A dispute over a girl precipitated the melee. But the tension that made the school ripe for violence had been building for some time. Students knew there was going to be a big brawl. No one knew where or when, but it was bound to happen.
Informal alliances had been forged. It boiled down to the jocks--primarily white athletes whose parents are well-to-do--versus the school's melting pot: The Spanish-speaking children of Mexican immigrants had pledged to join forces with the so-called "middle group," made up of black, white and Mexican-American nonathletes, the products of middle-class homes. Animosity between the middle group and the jocks had festered since the students had been in middle school. They were waiting for an excuse to clash.
By most contemporary standards, the rumble didn't amount to much. Nobody was seriously hurt. There were no drive-by shootings. Many public-school principals would be pleased if things got no worse than midday fisticuffs in the parking lot.
But Arcadia isn't like most schools, and the fight was a symptom that area residents had dreaded.
Three days after the brawl, parents crowded into the Arcadia library, demanding an explanation. Was the fight racially motivated? Were there gangs involved? Was the campus safe?
One white woman stood up and asked where "these kids" had come from, and what "they're doing here." She was referring to the Spanish-speaking students.
Her political incorrectness earned the woman a good shushing. But the question nobody wanted to utter had been asked. With it came the awful realization that Arcadia--the school and the neighborhood--probably would not be spared the problems gripping other urban neighborhoods and schools.
They'd heard how bad things were for teenagers trapped in blackboard jungles teeming with drugs, gangs and danger. They wondered whether the seeds of such turmoil had been sowed in their soil.
@body:Webster's Dictionary defines "arcadia" as "any place of rural peace and simplicity."
That's what the developers envisioned in 1919, when they proclaimed the discovery of an area northeast of Phoenix--nestled against what would later be named Camelback Mountain--that was 300 feet higher than Phoenix, and said to be an average of 28 degrees warmer in winter and 16 degrees cooler in summer.
They planted citrus trees and sold 12-acre lots. For three generations, Arcadia held fast to its founders' vision, maintaining a reputation as a peaceful residential area--home to an exclusive crowd of white professionals and their families, bereft of urban blight.
Susan Goldsmith has lived in Arcadia for ten years. She serves on the board of Scottsdale Unified School District, which includes Arcadia High School, although the school is physically located in Phoenix, on Indian School Road.
In the past three years, Goldsmith has noticed changes in her neighborhood. More people are renting rather than buying homes. She sees labels in Spanish on items at Dale's, the grocery store at 56th Street and Thomas. Down the street, the Target store at 38th Street and Thomas now features a line of Spanish-language greeting cards. Goldsmith hears Mexican music blasting from car stereos when she drives down Indian School and Thomas roads. And she senses her neighbors' discomfort.
"I'm not hearing . . . what we'd classically call racism or prejudice," Goldsmith says. "More people are locking their doors than used to. . . . I've heard a few people say, 'Oh, I don't know, I think I might go to a different grocery store.' People are not very open, generally, about what it is that they're seeing or feeling."
Nowhere are the changes more evident than at the public schools, where kids from tony Lafayette Boulevard ranch homes have been thrown together with middle-class or Mexican-immigrant kids who live in apartments and smaller houses south of Indian School Road.
Few will speak openly, but some parents are considering moving farther north or pulling their kids out of the public schools. An official at Phoenix Country Day School, an exclusive Paradise Valley private school, says inquiries from Arcadia have almost doubled in the past two years.
That's unusual. For years influential Valley residents have eschewed private schools for their children in favor of their neighborhood public high school, Arcadia. Names such as Driggs, Kyl and Goldwater have graced the rolls. Arcadia High has long been considered a quasi-prep school--a place, kids quipped, where Perrier spurted from drinking fountains and students arrived at school in limousines.