Lincoln High Fight Underscores Longstanding Tensions

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

What the Fight at Lincoln High Reveals About the School's Longstanding Tensions

A robust kind of grassroots support network has sprung up around Lincoln in the days since a fight on campus took a violent turn. The community outpouring has pushed some long-simmering frustrations into the spotlight.

It’s Thursday, but it’s already been a long week for students and parents of Lincoln High School.

Last Friday, what started as playful slap-fighting between students ended with one student face down on the ground and one school police officer standing above, shooting him with a Taser.

In the days since, students, community members and district officials have been piecing together what led to the altercation. More importantly, they’ve talked about what needs to happen at Lincoln moving forward. Neither the district nor Lincoln leaders have hatched a plan.

The public already has a basic understanding of what took place, thanks to eyewitnesses, statements from prosecutors and grainy cell phone footage: Young guys on campus were play-fighting. A school police officer named Bashir Abdi arrived on the scene.

Students dispersed, but Abdi followed one student, Jesse Duncan, into a nearby parking garage. A scuffle ensued between Duncan and Abdi. Abdi shot Duncan with his Taser. Duncan, prosecutors say, punched Abdi six or seven times. Other students got involved and several others were pepper-sprayed.

Duncan is now facing four charges, including assault on an officer and causing great bodily injury – all charges stemming from Duncan’s interaction with Abdi. Two other students were taken into custody, and more could be arrested.

At Duncan’s hearing Wednesday in Juvenile Court, a prosecutor said Abdi is currently wheelchair-bound with head, neck and facial injuries and no feeling in his right arm.

After the hearing, a judge released Duncan to the custody of his parents. He will be on house arrest and will have to wear ankle monitor.

Surveillance footage from school cameras will give clarity to what actually happened between Abdi and Duncan when they stood toe-to-toe in the garage.

Superintendent Cindy Marten pushed at first for a quick release of the footage. But District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis refused to do that, saying the video was evidence in a criminal investigation and needs to be protected until further notice.

A robust kind of grassroots support network has grown up around Lincoln in the days since the event. The fight – and law enforcement’s response– has been the focus of town hall meetings, in-class activities for students to talk about what happened and 7 a.m. prayer sessions.

When Duncan walked out of the courthouse Wednesday he was welcomed by throngs of students, some wearing T-shirts with the message: “Justice for Jesse.” A large group of supporters packed the halls during Duncan’s court hearing.

At many other schools, a fight is just a fight. But Lincoln has been a lightning rod since 1977, when a judge recognized it as one of San Diego’s 23 most racially segregated schools.

Lincoln High has grown to symbolize the intractable problems with high-poverty schools.

In 2013, Marten said, “What’s happening at Lincoln is at the heart of the struggle in America. When we get Lincoln right, we get America right.” District officials have yet to crack Lincoln’s code.

Here are a few points to surface out of this week’s conversations about Lincoln.

Disconnect

For a number of parents in the Lincoln community, the entire situation underscores a deep disconnect between parents, students, teachers and district leaders.

A Lincoln sophomore who witnessed the altercation said students often slap-box for fun at lunchtime. He guessed students had done it about 10 times during the year and two other times the same week as the brawl. Teachers and staff were aware of this. Students usually ended the game when the bell rang and classes started.

In other words, district staff could have stopped the play-fighting before it became a problem.

Students and parents close to the school say that John Ross, Lincoln’s principal, has been quiet – aside for a call for patience he made on the school PA system. He’s been absent from community meetings, Duncan’s court hearing and press conference.

Ross told Voice of San Diego he prefers that all questions be addressed by the district’s spokesperson.

LaShae Collins, vice president of the Association of African American Educators, said the situation was traumatizing for everyone involved. To Collins, who is running for the school board seat to represent Lincoln and other areas schools, the fight and how it was handled highlights a lack of leadership.

Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who was recently appointed to the board as an interim trustee, did not respond to requests for comment.

“What has the board done?” Collins said. “It’s not enough until each board member and Lincoln’s principal reach out and connect with these kids on a personal level. These students have to know they have a community of supporters rallied behind them.”

Wariness of the Press

The instant TV news crews showed up at Lincoln to report on the fight, students wanted to make one thing clear: The fight does not represent Lincoln High as a whole.

A number of students and parents close to the school believe the only time Lincoln gets exposure in the press is for something negative, like a fight. One student, a senior, challenged the public to “experience southeast San Diego as a whole before we jump to conclusions.”

It’s not altogether true that reporters only show up at Lincoln for negative news. When the school announces a new program, or invites reporters in, they’ve shown up. But violence generates a lot of media buzz.

History of Those Involved

The reputations of both Jesse Duncan and Bashir Abdi preceded them at Lincoln.

Abdi, a San Diego Unified police officer, had a run-in with Duncan’s brother last year, who later left Lincoln to attend a charter school.

NBC reported earlier this week that Abdi has a history of using force against students. In 2014, he used a Taser on another student.

Lincoln parents are wondering why Abdi was assigned to Lincoln in the first place. They don’t want him to return.

Kimberli Coons, Duncan’s aunt, said “school police officers should receive more than just training on how to provide security. They should receive training on how to work with kids.”

Jesse is the son of Brandon Duncan, a musician who uses the rap name Tiny Doo, and who made national news in 2015, after Dumanis charged him under an obscure law based on rap lyrics he wrote that referenced a string of local shootings, setting off a First Amendment outcry.

The charges against Brandon Duncan were eventually dropped.

Brandon Duncan told 10News he thinks his son was targeted because of him.

Cycle of Violence, Perception of Violence

The fight feeds into an already existing perception that Lincoln is an unsafe place for students.

Whether it’s lack of supervision that’s to blame – or if the perception is the result of sensationalized reports by media – the fact is that many parents from the neighborhood choose to send their kids to other schools.

In a recent cluster meeting – attended by principals and teachers from schools that feed into Lincoln High – principals reported one big reason parents opt for other schools is to avoid the violence that occurs on the Lincoln campus.

That perception shows up in the numbers. The school opened with capacity for 2,700 students. In 2007, it opened the school year with 2,300. Enrollment has dwindled to 1,450 this year. Lincoln has enough extra space that the district is legally obligated to offer that space to a charter school.

Regardless of whether the violence is real or perceived, district and school leaders need a plan to address the perception of school violence. So far, they’re still waiting for that plan and the person to make it happen.

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