When Roberto Frietz, now 39, was a student at South Mountain High School in the 1970s, a riot brought on by racial tensions broke out at the school.

"I had no charges brought against me, because I wasn't a participant," Frietz recalls. "But I still remember what it was like on campus that day. The riot was distinctly race-related. You had blacks fighting Hispanics and whites against blacks."

On October 13, South Mountain was the scene of another riot, which spilled over into the surrounding neighborhood. Heavy television coverage served to blow up the problem. The coverage thrilled the viewers in Paradise Valley, but created deep resentment in the neighborhood around the school, which felt its reputation had been attacked unfairly.

What the South Phoenix residents could not possibly know is that a riot is almost as big for television as is a fire burning out of control. Both events provide hot images for the viewer at home. It is an ironclad media rule that no one can turn off a television set that is showing either a fire or a street riot.

Fires are plentiful. But street fights that last long enough for TV camera operators to reach the scene while blows are still being struck are rarities to be cherished.

In the television-news business, riots are like found gold. So they are shown over and over.

How many times do you still see old footage of the riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968? How many times do you think you will see the reenactment of the riots in Los Angeles that were connected to the outcome of the Rodney King case? For the next decade, you will be shown the film of that truck driver being pulled to the ground and hit with a brick. By the time TV wears it out, you will have every step down pat, as though it were a ceremonial dance.

At South Mountain High, there are 3,600 students enrolled in a school built to handle only 2,500.

The overcrowding at the 40-year-old school has been cited by Moody Jackson, South Mountain's principal, as a root cause of the disturbance.

The fighting was so out of control on the day of the riot that it was halted only after school security guards, Phoenix police and Department of Public Safety officers entered the fray and separated the black students from the Hispanics. Even then, the fighting shifted off campus, erupting sporadically through the surrounding area.

Police reports show that 18 students were arrested at the scene. It has been estimated that approximately 60 students who were seen fighting have been suspended from classes for the rest of the year. Principal Moody Jackson did not return phone calls from New Times to confirm the number.

The suspensions brought Frietz into the case as a volunteer advocate. He doubted that they were being handed out on a fair basis. Frietz recalls from his own days at South Mountain that many of those who started the trouble in the 1970s went undetected, while innocent students suffered suspensions.

So on the Tuesday after the riot, Frietz attended a public meeting at which school officials and police attempted to explain to parents and interested residents what happened on the campus and what was about to happen.

Frietz was startled to hear Commander Ron Bates of the South Mountain police district give what Frietz interpreted as a callous reply to a question about endangering the students.

Bates was asked if the use of police lines to push the competing black and Hispanic groups off campus together was not like throwing them from the frying pan into the fire.

By Frietz's account, Bates said:
"In an operation of this sort, you have to expect casualties."
Frietz noticed at the meeting that even though many of the Spanish-speaking parents could not understand what was being said from the podium, there was no attempt to provide an interpreter for them.

Frietz sat next to the parents of two students who had been suspended from school for fighting. He offered them his assistance.

You might wonder why Frietz would volunteer his time in an effort that offered no financial reward and promised a lot of detailed investigation. Only after you have spoken to him several times do you realize he is sincere in his effort to help the less fortunate. He is a do-gooder in the best sense of the word.

Frietz, who attended Northern Arizona University, has worked for the past five years as a Homeless Outreach coordinator. His job is to provide mental-health treatment to the homeless who are mentally ill.

His wife has been a grade-school teacher in South Phoenix for more than a decade. She has seen at least 100 of her students go through South Mountain High School.