A Muslim 12th grader at a San Fernando Valley campus schooled me on the complexities of ethnic identity.

For most of the past decade ethnic fights at her campus, Birmingham High School, and neighboring Grant High School have been as predictable as the Santa Ana winds or traffic in the Sepulveda Pass. The headlines out of the Van Nuys schools appeared clear: Hundreds of Armenian and Latino High School Students in Campus Brawls. Some fights were so bad, on several occasions school district police summoned the LAPD for reinforcements. Students say perceived disrespect was the most common trigger.

Campus administrators began clamping down with tougher discipline and by training teachers to nip conflict in the bud. They were helped by Cal State Northridge professors who helped guide conflict mediation sessions.

Graduating senior Saaliha Khan is one of 40 students at Birmingham High signed up this year as a peer mediator. She has stood out among students this year for her enlightened leadership. That praise comes from fellow students and administrators. Princeton University said so too when it handed her the Princeton Prize this year for her efforts to diffuse ethnic tensions at Birmingham High School.

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Saaliha Khan is Birmigham High's first Muslim student body president. A couple of weeks ago she walked me through campus after her AP English final, an essay exploring whether The Catcher in the Rye's main character suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.

She's neither big nor a man but it became obvious strolling down the halls she's the Big Man On Campus. Here's an interesting coincidence: nearly everyone on campus calls her "Sally." She likes it because one of Birmingham High's most notable graduates is actor Sally Field.

She claims friends from most ethnicities and is able to back that up by switching from Spanish and Armenian to Urdu.

12th grader Harumy Cruz counts herself as a friend of Sally. Cruz says racism is alive and well and counts herself lucky to have avoided it most of her life. She admires Sally's ability to bridge cultures. "Sometimes kids tend to avoid each other. Like when we're out at the quad during lunch. They'll just stick with their group of friends, their own race or culture and when they see Sally come in and talk to different people, they start realizing, hey maybe I can be friend with those kids too."

Lunchtime is the most segregated part of the school day. Armenians are in one corner of the quad, white students in another, black kids by the cafeteria, and Asians in the yearbook office.

Burly football player Jose Giacoman, also a friend of Sally, says it's gotten much better in the four years he's been at Birmingham High. Some students are looking for any reason to fight and ethnic divisions are the natural camps, he says. He's a U.S.-raised Latino with three Salvadoran grandparents and one Turkish grandparent. He downplays ethnicity. These days, he says, divisions fall along interests: skaters hang out, swim team members hang out.

The campus is roughly 70% Hispanic, 13% white and 10% black. Harumy Cruz says that allows Latinos to more easily move between cliques. "I guess you could consider me part of the Latino clique but I'm in a group that has white kids, black kids." Cruz's parents are Salvadoran immigrants. She grew up in a bilingual household and is headed to Soka University in Aliso Viejo to major in social and behavioral science.

Saaliha's is and is not an immigrant. She was born in New Jersey but lived in her parents' native Pakistan until seven years ago. She's very aware of politics in that country. Her father was a doctor in Pakistan and was laid off from his medical research job here several months ago. She's headed to Georgetown University, hopefully she says, in preparation for a career as a diplomat.

Saaliha says the Koran is her guide to the complexities of her current everyday life. She's a devout Muslim who prays three times a day and is active in her Reseda mosque. She tells me the Koran says a smile is a form of charity. Saaliha Khan's found out that's often the best way to open the door to communication and understanding.

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