joseph_lee_web.jpgWEST PALM BEACH — It started as a Sweet 16 party. By the time it ended, two teenagers were dead. A third has been charged with murder.

The reason? According to some community leaders and educators, the violence stemmed from “cultural differences” and ignorance about each other in the African-American and Haitian-American communities.

Educators, alarmed that the tensions have seeped into schools, are seeking to calm passions and promote greater understanding between two black communities who, they say, should not be at war with each other.

The Black Educators Caucus of Palm Beach County hosted a Town Hall meeting Dec. 6 at the Roosevelt Full Service Center in West Palm Beach to explore with residents the underlying factors that led to the shooting deaths of Antonio Hinds, 17, of Riviera Beach, and Andy Joseph, 16, a Palm Beach Gardens High School sophomore, in September.

They were killed during an altercation at the Newcomb Banquet Hall at the Riviera Beach Marina.

Murder suspect Rijkard Jean-Baptiste, 20, reportedly told Riviera Beach police officers that he took a loaded semi-automatic weapon to the party because he expected problems.

Baptiste said that he bought the gun off the streets to protect himself in case something happened between African Americans and Haitian Americans, who did not get along.

Ronald Leonard, president of the Black Educators Caucus, said he hopes that the meeting will help solve this problem of youth and violence through dialogue and some course of action.

The meeting featured Gerald Burke, a retired educator, the Rev. Tony Drayton, pastor of the St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Riviera Beach, Joseph Lee, an assistant superintendent with the School District of Palm Beach County, Cathy Pressey, program planner for the district’s African, African-American, Latino and gender studies, and Police Lt. Scott Smith, coordinator of the gang violence unit with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department.

Leonard said some Haitian Americans have told him that they are not “liked” by African Americans and that is not true either.

But, he added, African Americans “need to get involved with the Haitian community.  We are too standoffish right now.”

Salusa Basquin, who was born in Haiti and moved to the U.S. as a teen 32 years ago, said that if young people do not respect themselves or others, they will not respect life.

“I don’t think the issue is an issue of Haitian-American youth versus African-American youth,” Basquin said. “I think the problem is youth lacking respect for themselves and other individuals.”

Kayai Graham, who said she works at a mentoring program with African-American and Haitian-American youth, said they get along well.

“You have black-on-black crimes, Haitian-on-Haitian crimes,” Graham said.  “I think people are blowing the Newcomb Hall shooting up more than what it is.  This is an isolated incident.”

Graham said although there are some cultural differences between the two communities, the discord is based on ignorance.

Resident Michael Jordan blamed the violence on lack of knowledge of each other’s culture and also peer pressure.

“It’s not how it used to be in the older days when you could have a disagreement and then let things go,” he said. “It’s territorial to see who’s the toughest.  It’s the types of things that youth are facing now because of peer pressure.”

Lee said safety at schools and in the community is definitely a concern and the school district is dealing with many of the needs that concern African-American and minority students in general, including “positive behavior support.”

“One of the issues that particularly impact students of color is stigmas attached to the students,” Lee said. “There are certain cultural things that impact us: the way you address me, the way you speak to me, eye contact.”

Pressey said it is important to connect the dots.