January 31, 1994 12:00 PM

SITTING SMACK IN THE MIDDLE OF A cornfield, an American flag flying proudly out. front, North Newton Junior-Senior H.S. in Morocco, Ind., might have sprung from the brush of Norman Rockwell. But the racially tinged fracas that has embroiled the virtually all-while school (there are two African-American students and 850 while) about 60 miles south of Chicago could come only from a pen dipped in scorn and satire. Try Mark Twain.

If you listen to the rhetoric brandished by the town fathers, though, the controversy barely rates lifting an eyebrow”. “It has nothing to do with race,” insists John Morgin, president of the North Newton Chamber of Commerce. “Whatever happened in that school happened between a handful of people. One or two of them found a way to make it a big media event. The media have tagged it a racial issue.”

The Big Media Event began last fall when a group of about 10 girls at North Newton bought back-to-school hip-hop style wardrobes. They laced tiny braids through their hair and wore sags and rags (baggy jeans and bandannas) like their favorite rappers. Alison Quigg, 14, for one, spent $500 on her orange sags and huge T-shirts. “We see these clothes on MTV,” she says. “I thought they looked good.”

But a bumptious pack of boys who dress in the tight Levis and T-shirts favored by local kids took offense. Says Billie Sexton, 16: “We called the girls whiggers,”—an insult combining the words “white” and “nigger.” “You should act your color,” adds Sexton. “We also called them freaks and bitches.”

In return, the hip hoppers called the boys hicks and honkies. Soon the name-calling escalated into spitting and shoving. Things got so bad, says Quigg, that she began to carry a pocket knife. On Nov. 18, someone slipped a threat, “You’re going to die tomorrow,” into the locker of Angela Scheeringa, a 13-year-old sag-wearer. Another boy took exception to the four tiny braids honor student Michell Kegley, 15, had tucked into her blond ponytail, so he punched her in the face on her way to dance team practice. “I don’t feel safe in school now,” says Kegley, who suffered a black eye. “I’m nervous all the time.”

She wasn’t alone. That day several harassed girls and three angry parents met with principal Gene Bell. His solution to the violence was to ask the girls to dress more conservatively.

The next day, most did. But a few showed up wearing cornrows and slouchy jeans. This time the boys had a fashion statement of their own. About 10 of them wore white T-shirts which, the girls say, symbolized their allegiance to while supremacy. “I say they’d dress that way on any day. The girls think if you wear a white shirt it means you’re in the KKK,” says Josh Cronch, 16. Before the final bell that day, which came to be known as KKK Day, four hip hoppers had been temporarily suspended, says Bell, for “being disrespetful and disorderly.” Quigg, who had accidentally dropped her knife in front of the assistant principal, was also suspended. Sexton, caught with a pellet gun, was later suspended and six other boys disciplined.

By the end of November, seven hip-hop girls had withdrawn from North Newton and eight families had sued the school for compensatory and punitive damages, claiming that “racially motivated harassment” was making school unsafe for their children.

JJ Campbell, 13, one of North Newton’s two African-American students, agrees that the school’s racial atmosphere leaves something to be desired. He had been harassed since he began classes last November. “I thought, well, I’m new,” he says. “Then I got hit in the face.” Unaware of the hip-hop controversy but disturbed by the hostility, he left after only 13 days.

But on Jan. 12, JJ returned for another try. By then the rest who had dropped out or been suspended had come back as well. Since that time, North Newton has taken steps to remedy the situation, announcing a three-year commitment, including conflict-resolution workshops for the kids.

For now, though, nothing much has changed in Morocco, Ind. The boys are still angry. And the girls continue to wear their sags. Yet in the interim they forged a friendship with JJ. As a result, there is one deeply felt lesson they will always carry with them. “We can change the way we dress to please other people,” says hip hopper Alizabeth Grzych, 15. “But someone like JJ can never change his skin color.”


LEAH ESKIN in Morocco

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