Lafayette High School

Summer 2007 Outlook (Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)):
Lafayette High School will be closed. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the move was part of a citywide restructuring effort to boost student achievement by closing down larger, low-performing high schools.
AALDEF Staff Attorney Khin Mai Aung has been keeping close tabs on Lafayette since the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) ordered the school to enforce anti-harassment and English Language Learner policies in 2004. For years, Asian American students for Lafayette faced discrimination from classmates and administrators, as well as hate violence on school property. These incidents were never properly investigated until DOJ compelled Lafayette to do so by consent decree. Over the past few years, Aung has trained a group of nearly 40 dedicated Lafayette students to monitor the enforcement of the consent decree.
In the last five years, Census data show Asian Americans, mostly Chinese, have grown from five to ten percent of Brooklyn residents. In Bensonhurst, more than 20 percent of residents are Asian American. AALDEF is working with Lafayette High School student advocates to develop a youth rights training video to assist other students in dealing with hate violence and anti-Asian harassment.
6/2/04 New York Times: “City To Help Curb Harassment of Asian Students at High School,”

After a long investigation by the Justice Department into reports that Asian students at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn were verbally and physically harassed by fellow students while school authorities looked the other way, New York City has agreed to take steps to curb harassment and enhance services for non-English-speakers at the school.

Under a consent decree filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn yesterday, the city’s Department of Education agreed to improve translation services for students and start “diversity and tolerance” training for students at Lafayette, a large school in the Gravesend neighborhood with a troubled record.

“There has been severe and pervasive peer-on-peer harassment of Asian students at Lafayette High School that is based on the Asian students’ race and national origin,” according to the government’s complaint, which was also filed yesterday. “The persistent harassment has created an objectively hostile environment.”

The Justice Department said that students regularly threw food, drink cans and even metal locks at Asian-American students while shouting ethnic slurs, and that school authorities “have been deliberately indifferent to the harassment of Asian students.” The complaint also charged that Lafayette’s English as a Second Language program was “deficient in a number of areas,” including class placement and communication with non-English-speaking parents.

Other problems included violent assaults against Asian students on and off school property. An investigator said school safety agents sometimes told Asian students who had been attacked or harassed that they could not help them unless the students could identify their assailants.

Some students who finished their requirements for graduation early said they were forced to leave school after three years and did not feel prepared for college.

Under the consent decree, the Department of Education agreed that Lafayette students who do not speak English well would be placed in appropriate classes within 10 days of enrolling. It agreed to improve translation services and promised that, for example, Mandarin-speaking students who do not understand Cantonese would not be placed in bilingual classes taught in Cantonese.

The department also promised that Lafayette would develop a policy clarifying school officials’ obligations to report cases of harassment based on race, color and national origin, and designate a staff member to handle such complaints.

The Justice Department will monitor Lafayette’s progress over the next three years.

According to the Department of Education, Lafayette’s more than 2,000 students speak at least 30 different languages. Michael Best, the general counsel for the school system, said in a statement, “Lafayette recognizes the diversity of its population and, in order to minimize harassment, has taken steps to heighten awareness among students.”


7/8/01 New York Times: “Immigrants Battle to Stay in High School”

Last September, Ms. Wan Shan Hu was one of five Chinese immigrants who were told by an assistant principal to leave Lafayette at the start of their senior year because they had completed the basic requirements for graduation. Three weeks later they were allowed to return, after Board of Education officials had intervened and a spokeswoman acknowledged that there was no early-graduation rule for students who had met all the requirements.  Ms. Hu graduated as her class’s valedictorian.  Some parents in the the audience grumbled that it was always an immigrant who got the award.  Others booed outright.

But that incident and several others, including the recent beating of a Pakistani student in front of the school and charges of insubordination against an Asian-American guidance counselor have led some parents and teachers to accuse several Lafayette officials of discrimination.  The school’s acting principal, Kenneth Sinclair, declined requests for an interview, as did the assistant principal, Rosemary Assenso.

Lafayette, a high school of about 2,100 students in Bensonhurst, is not the only school where ethnic tensions have surfaced as the city’s immigrant population has grown significantly in the last decade, according to officials of community and immigrant advocacy groups. In Brooklyn alone, the Chinese and Indian population rose by more than 75 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to the Census Bureau. Citywide, the Pakistani and Bangladeshi population more than doubled in that period. Chinese and Pakistani students are two of the fastest growing groups in the city’s public school system.

Ms. Hu’s problems began shortly before the school year started, when her guidance counselor, Anna Eng, helped her choose her senior classes. Ms. Eng said that when she went to Ms. Assenso’s office before school began, Ms. Assenso, one of several assistant principals at Lafayette, told her that Ms. Hu had automatically graduated at the end of her junior year because she had completed the work required for graduation.

When Ms. Eng told Ms. Assenso that Ms. Hu had to return to Lafayette because she had not yet applied to colleges or for financial aid, the assistant principal replied: “She can go to Kingsborough Community College,” a two-year-school with open admissions. Ms. Eng said she protested that Ms. Hu could get into several Ivy League schools, but that Ms. Assenso replied, “No, she cannot get into Yale or Columbia.” Ms. Hu was accepted to Columbia in April.

On the first day of school, according to Ms. Hu and another of the five students, Qian Mai, Ms. Assenso handed both of them their diplomas and told them to leave the school immediately. “She just cut my school I.D. card like that, in front of my eyes,” Mr. Mai said. Ms. Hu remembers being shocked and frightened. “My parents couldn’t speak English that well,” she said, “so they couldn’t come to school to speak to the principal.”

Over the next two weeks, according to at least a dozen students and teachers, Ms. Assenso informed three other Chinese students – Wen Jie Li, Lafayette’s math team captain; Rong Li, and Kakit Leung – that they would have to leave for the same reason: they had done everything necessary to graduate. All five students had earned extra credits in part by taking on more than the usual course load. The teachers and students said that they knew of other students who had met graduation requirements early, but those students were not asked to leave.

Mark Talo, who taught English as a second language at Lafayette but quit at the end of the recent school year, said the assistant principal had pulled two of the three Chinese students from his classes to deliver the news.  “The atmosphere at the school was very depressing,” Mr. Talo said. “It was like being in the Deep South during Jim Crow.”

Several Chinese-American teachers at the school said that after the five students left, the teachers called reporters at four Chinese-language newspapers in New York City.

Last Sept. 28, the five Lafayette students, along with dozens of Chinese students from other high schools, rallied in front of Board of Education headquarters in downtown Brooklyn chanting: “Back to school. Back to school.” A board spokeswoman at the time, Pamela McDonnell, came outside and told them there was no rule that students meeting minimum graduation requirements had to leave school before completing their senior year.

A few hours later, the five Lafayette students were escorted back to the school by a delegation that included the Board of Education’s superintendent of student monitoring, Ronald Woo, and Rose DePinto, then the superintendent for high schools in Brooklyn and Staten Island. The following day, all five began advanced placement classes.

A similar problem occurred in February, when several Chinese students in the 11th grade received transcripts indicating they had been promoted to 12th grade and would graduate by January 2002. Two of the 11th-graders, Chen Yan Fen and Chen Jia Xin, have filed a complaint with the city’s Human Rights Commission. A spokesman for the commission said it was evaluating the complaint, but would not comment further.

Ms. Eng, the guidance counselor, also filed a complaint with the commission, accusing Ms. Assenso of harassment. Ms. Eng said that after she ignored Ms. Assenso’s order not to help Ms. Hu and Mr. Li, the math captain, with college applications, Ms. Assenso placed “many” letters in her personnel file, ”including two in June” accusing her of insubordination. “I just wish they would stop putting these letters in my file,” Ms. Eng said, “so I can transfer out.”

In April, seven Chinese parents were elected to the parent- teacher committee that was to evaluate candidates, including Mr. Sinclair, to become Lafayette’s permanent principal. But that election, which was open to all parents of Lafayette students, was nullified because of a technicality. A new election must be held, but Mr. Sinclair has withdrawn his application.

Students and teachers say they are bewildered and demoralized by the last year’s events at Lafayette. “A coincidence here, a coincidence there, and it keeps happening,” said a veteran teacher who also asked that his name not be used because he feared retaliation. “You start to think it’s a premeditated persecution of Asian students.” He said that he hoped to transfer by fall.

Ms. Hu was also looking forward to fall and starting college. She plans to study computer science at Columbia.


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