South Philadelphia High School principal
Superintendent – Philadelphia School District
6/16/11: Winners of the Freedom from Fear award:
Wei Chen, Bach Tong, Duong Nghe Le & Xu Lin: Philadelphia, PA
Asian immigrant high school students who led an eight-day boycott to stop school violence
South Philly High is a tough place. Its grim structure occupies an entire city block, and inside its imposing walls student groups stake out their own territory. It used to be a very violent place, especially for recent Asian immigrants.
When Wei Chen’s father brought him to Philadelphia from China, he spoke no English and had no knowledge of the community’s history of tense race relations. But he discovered immediately that Asian students at the school were being systematically beaten by groups of other students, and that the school administration was doing nothing to stop it. Not knowing what else to do, Wei believed his best chance lay in keeping his head down, working hard and not attracting any attention.
That didn’t work. A month after starting school, he stood at his locker reaching for a book when a fist smashed into the back of his head, and another into his neck.
Hundreds of Asian students lived in fear for most of the school day. Most of the school staff had given into the violence and accepted it as inevitable. Instead of fighting back, the students often begged their parents to drop out of school.
Wei studied the civil rights movement tried to organize students to stand up against the attacks, boycott classes and demand that the school administration take more aggressive action to prevent them. But too many were fearful of reprisal and disapproval from their own parents, who were culturally resistant to challenge authority.
Wei formed a new group called the Chinese-American Student Association. He greeted all new Chinese immigrant students as they first arrived at the school to help them make the transition. And he started keeping a notebook, detailing assaults on immigrant students. Before long he had filled it with excruciating details of violence and administrative neglect.
On December 3rd, 2009, 30 Asian immigrant students were violently attacked and sent to the hospital emergency room. In the days following the melee, Wei brought forth his notebook, full of names and phone numbers for every student he had welcomed to America in the past two years. In the weekend after the attacks, he called each of them, calling anew for a boycott.
He got to work encouraging other students to stay strong and resist the adults who demanded they return to the school. In a city that struggles to get its young people to attend school, Wei had to fight to keep his friends from sneaking back into class. He drafted a letter for the other students to take home to their parents, explaining the cause. He sent a representative to the school to collect homework assignments, and created an enrollment form that concerned students could sign to show they weren’t just taking an unauthorized holiday.
More than 50 Asian students joined Wei in protest over the next eight days. They eventually filed a civil rights complaint against the District. Their actions garnered national attention and created change at the school. The principal resigned and her successor has made school safety a priority. Some 126 new security cameras were installed throughout the school and extra security staff and counselors were brought in. Most importantly, Wei and his fellow students refused to blame other students of color for the violence, instead insisting that the administration take responsibility for school safety.
Wei showed a level of maturity, clear headedness and equanimity beyond his years. His example has inspired other Asian immigrant students across Philadelphia to create Asian immigrant student organizations in their own high schools. Wei and others have also started a citywide Asian student organization, Asian Student Association of Philadelphia (ASAP), which is working with other youth organizations on Philadelphia’s Campaign for Non-Violent Schools. Wei’s physical and moral courage have inspired students citywide to see the possibility and necessity of challenging schools to creating safe learning environments for all students, including immigrants.
Statements of the Asian American students who were attacked
On December 3, 2009, 26 Asian students were attacked and beaten by a large group of their peers, mostly African American, throughout the school day at South Philadelphia High School. 13 of the students who were attacked wound up in the hospital. There was already a history of violence against Asian students–many of them immigrants–at the school, whose student body is 64.6% African American, 22.4% Asian American, 6.3% White, 5.8% Latino, and 0 .8% Other, yet district officials were quick to dismiss that the December 3rd attacks had been racially motivated.
After meeting with district officials following the attacks, a group of over 60 Asian American students remained unconvinced that their safety at school would be ensured and organized an eight day-long boycott. Wei Chen, a senior at the time, made this statement for the group:
“It is our opinion that South Philadelphia High School is still not a safe place for us. Because we are Asian immigrants, we are targeted. We have been working with the school a long time, but still the school has failed to provide a concrete plan to address our safety inside and outside the building.
“We remain very upset with some staff members who are unresponsive to our concerns. We have been saying repeatedly that the security team has problems, but the School District still has not responded to our concerns. One staff person even slept through our meeting last Friday. Because of that we will not return to South Philadelphia High School this week. Instead, we are going to meet in our community to figure out some real solutions of our own. Dozens of students have already committed to meeting during school hours. We ask the police and school district to recognize what we’re doing and respect our ability to travel between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. We invite concerned students from all races to contact us if you want to join.”
During the boycott, the students asked to meet with Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman about their safety concerns, but Dr. Ackerman refused, saying she would only meet with them on school grounds “where they belong.”
In January 2010, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund interceded on behalf of the students and filed a civil rights violation complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against South Philadelphia High School and the Philadelphia School District. The complaint revealed that the AALDEF had actually been working for over a year with various other groups to address the hostile environment towards Asian students that existed at the school:
“The complaint charges that the District and School acted with “deliberate indifference” to the harassment against Asian students and “intentional disregard for the welfare of Asian students” at SPHS. The complaint cites numerous instances in which school officials were notified by teachers and Asian students about the increasingly hostile environment towards Asian students but failed to take any steps to prevent the widespread attacks on Asian students on December 3, 2009.
“On December 3, 2009, large numbers of Asian immigrant students from SPHS were assaulted in and around the school throughout the day. Thirteen Asian students were sent to the hospital due to their injuries. For over a year before the December 3rd attacks, AALDEF in collaboration with local community groups – Asian Americans United, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, Boat People SOS, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, and Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, Inc. – urged school and district officials to address in the increasingly hostile environment for Asian students at SPHS without success.”
In February, a little more than two months after the attacks, the Philadelphia Schools District commissioned a report on the violence that had occurred at South Philadelphia High School. Superintendent Ackerman called the report “thorough and comprehensive” and “fair.” But Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, pointed out what appeared to be fairly obvious flaws in the report, all of which worked to deflect responsibility for the attacks from the school:
1) No review of the history of violence at SPHS: For more than a year, students and community advocates documented dozens of incidents of harassment and assaults on Asian immigrant students at the school. Yet, Judge Giles said he was directed to limit his investigation to only two days, December 2 and December 3rd. Only three sentences in the report (p. 28) reference prior violence at the school. The investigation also ignored documented efforts by students and community advocates to implement critical changes to address racially motivated violence at the school.
2) Limited interviews: The investigation only involved a fraction of the student victims and neglected the majority of victims, as well as other witnesses, school staff and community advocates who were at the scene on December 3. In a number of instances, those individuals interviewed expressed concern that they were denied a chance to tell their full stories and were cut off when they attempted to do so.
3) Limited attention to racial bias: While the investigation acknowledged the role of race in the assaults and harassment against Asian immigrant students, it does not recognize racial bias in the failure of the District to respond to that harassment and communicate with families and students. In particular, it does not address how the on-going harassment of Asian immigrant students and the school’s failure to respond creates a hostile climate for Asian immigrant youth at South Philly.
4) Innuendo and rumors as deflection: I was particularly troubled by the use of innuendo and rumor to suggest that the events of Dec. 3rd may have been gang-related. Two pages are devoted to references to gang activity despite the fact that no credible evidence was presented other than the suggestion that group activity is “reminiscent of a street gang conflict” (p. 5). In any investigation, it’s essential that innuendos, gossip and rumors be addressed and put to rest. It’s troubling that a stereotype of urban youth is so casually deployed in this report to deflect attention away from school accountability.
In April, another Asian student at South Philadelphia High School was assaulted, but the school district ruled that the student had been attacked “carelessly but unintentionally,” despite a conflicting witness account.
Before the start of the next school year, in August 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice informed the Philadelphia School District that they had found merit in the Asian students’ claims that they were singled out for abuse at South Philadelphia High School. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“In a letter to the district, the Justice Department advised school officials to take steps to settle the matter. It was not immediately clear what form a settlement might take, though it would require the district to improve the treatment of Asian students, who say they have been mocked, harassed, and beaten at the school.”
Finally, on December 15, 2010, one year and 12 days after 26 Asian students were assaulted at South Philadelphia High School, the Philadelphia School District reached an agreement with the Justice Department to address anti-Asian violence at the school. CNN reported on the details of the settlement:
“The settlements require South Philadelphia High School to submit an anti-harassment action plan, and continue implementing policies and procedures to prevent harassment based on race, color and/or national origin…
“The settlements, which hold the district responsible for implementation and oversight, resolve eight discrimination complaints alleging widespread harassment of Asian students at South Philadelphia High School.”
12/15/10 press release:
Justice Department Reaches Agreement with Philadelphia School District to Resolve Harassment Allegations; Also Reaches Agreement with School Reform Commission
WASHINGTON – The Justice Department today announced a settlement agreement with the School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission to resolve an investigation into a complaint of race, color and/or national origin-based harassment of Asian students at South Philadelphia High School, and allegations that the school district was deliberately indifferent to the severe and pervasive harassment. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) announced a separate agreement with the School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, made by the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), alleged persistent harassment, including an incident in December 2009, in which approximately 30 Asian students were attacked and approximately 13 were sent to the emergency room. Under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, school districts are required to protect students from harassment based on race, color, sex, national origin or religion.
With the cooperation of the district, AALDEF, numerous community advocacy groups, students, and numerous witnesses, the department conducted an extensive investigation of the school district’s policies and practices with regard to student-on-student harassment. The settlement agreement will ensure that the district: retains an expert consultant in the area of harassment and discrimination based on race, color and/or national origin to review the district’s policies and procedures concerning harassment; develops and implements a comprehensive plan for preventing and addressing student-on-student harassment at the high school; conducts training of faculty, staff and students on discrimination and harassment based on race, color and/or national origin and to increase multi-cultural awareness; maintains records of investigations and responses to allegations of harassment; and provides annual compliance reports to the department and the PHRC as well as makes harassment data publicly available.
“Schools have an obligation to ensure a safe learning environment for everyone. We will continue to use all of the tools in our law enforcement arsenal to ensure that all students can go to school without fearing harassment,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “I applaud the proactive steps taken by the school district to address this matter, as well as the courageous actions of students, parents and community leaders who came forward to call attention to the pervasive harassment.”
Zane David Memeger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, added that, “All children in the school district are the big winners today.” Memeger said, “We hope that the investigation and our settlement agreement represent the start of a corrective action plan that eventually will eliminate student-on-student harassment in all Philadelphia public schools, not just South Philadelphia High School.”
1/26/10 press release: “DOJ Investigates Racial Violence against Philadelphia Students,”
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) today filed a complaint for civil rights violations with the U.S. Department of Justice charging the School District of Philadelphia and South Philadelphia High School (SPHS) with discrimination against Asian students on the basis of race and national origin in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The complaint charges that the District and School acted with “deliberate indifference” to the harassment against Asian students and “intentional disregard for the welfare of Asian students” at SPHS. The complaint cites numerous instances in which school officials were notified by teachers and Asian students about the increasingly hostile environment towards Asian students but failed to take any steps to prevent the widespread attacks on Asian students on December 3, 2009.
On December 3, 2009, large numbers of Asian immigrant students from SPHS were assaulted in and around the school throughout the day. Thirteen Asian students were sent to the hospital due to their injuries. For over a year before the December 3rd attacks, AALDEF in collaboration with local community groups – Asian Americans United, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, Boat People SOS, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, and Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, Inc. – urged school and district officials to address in the increasingly hostile environment for Asian students at SPHS without success.
AALDEF Staff Attorney Cecilia Chen said: “The failure of the Philadelphia School District and South Philadelphia High School to acknowledge and address the severe harassment of Asian students at SPHS led to the December 3rd attacks. The School and District must be held accountable for failing to protect Asian students at SPHS.”
Following the attacks on December 3rd, over sixty Asian students from SPHS boycotted the school for eight days citing fear for their safety and concern at the District’s repeated failure to address the widespread anti-Asian violence at the school.
Chen continued: “The students have gone back to school but that does not mean that the school is now safe. Asian immigrant students are still being targeted and threatened. We want to ensure that Asian immigrant students can go to school in a safe environment.”
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), founded in 1974, is a national organization that protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans. By combining litigation, advocacy, education, and organizing, AALDEF works with Asian American communities across the country to secure human rights for all.
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Statements of the Asian American students who were attacked
1/20/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Rights complaint filed in South Phila. High case,”
by Jeff Gammage
A legal group filed a federal civil-rights complaint against the Philadelphia schools yesterday, claiming the district discriminated against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School.
The complaint, lodged with the Justice Department by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, claims the district acted with “deliberate indifference” to the harassment of Asian students and with “intentional disregard” of their welfare.
Time after time for more than a year, according to the complaint, community advocates told school and district administrators that Asian students were being punched, mocked, and cursed. That treatment was so common that it seemed like part of the school climate, the complaint says.
The schools’ inaction, the complaint says, led to the violence on Dec. 3, when large groups of mostly African American students attacked about 30 Asian students. The assaults sent at least 11 students to hospitals and sparked a boycott by about 50 Asian students.
The district said in a written response that “the claim of ‘intentional discrimination’ makes no sense. Asserting that the district would have ‘intentional disregard’ for the welfare of its students is as outrageous as it is hurtful to so many professionals, students, and others who have been devoted to addressing these issues in a meaningful manner.”
Civil-rights complaints do not result in criminal penalties. They are aimed at obtaining broad, systemic reforms, provided the Justice Department finds that violations have occurred.
The district said it would cooperate with the Justice Department.
The legal defense fund laid out its allegations in a detailed, 11-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer. Much of the complaint is based on statements and eyewitness accounts from students, teachers, and others at the school. None is identified.
“We will review the letter to determine what action, if any, is appropriate,” Justice Department spokesperson Alejandro Miyar said yesterday.
Typically, if allegations warrant, the department conducts a preliminary investigation, with a full inquiry to follow if necessary.
The complaint portrays the events of Dec. 3 as a complete breakdown of adult leadership, saying Asian students pleaded for help and protection and were generally ignored by school staff.
The complaint says one teacher reported the students’ fears to principal LaGreta Brown after seeing that Asian students were reluctant to enter the cafeteria. “Today is dangerous,” a student told the teacher.
The complaint says Brown refused the teacher’s request to let Asian students remain in classrooms, where they felt safe, and instead ordered a security guard to escort them into the cafeteria.
The complaint singles Brown out for alleged indifference to the danger Asian students faced. She could not be reached yesterday. Her office referred inquiries to the district.
On Dec. 3, the complaint says, Brown encountered about 10 Vietnamese students outside the school. They told her they were frightened to walk past large groups of youths gathered on the sidewalk.
Brown responded, “If you are afraid, then I will walk with you,” and told the students to follow her, the complaint says.
She led the group forward, but the Asian students soon lost sight of her, the complaint says. “Apparently, principal Brown walked the Vietnamese students partially into the public walkway and then decided to return to school.”
As the 10 students reached Mifflin Street, they were surrounded and assaulted by 40 students, mostly African American, the complaint says.
The complaint claims that Brown, who became principal in fall 2009, has shown a discriminatory attitude toward Asian students.
Teachers reported that at a staff meeting before the start of the school year, Brown called the English-learners program, which is centered on the second floor, “That dynasty,” the complaint says. Teachers believed she was disparagingly referring to Chinese dynasties, the document says.
In the days after the Dec. 3 assaults, the complaint says, Brown described the community advocacy on behalf of the students as “the Asian agenda.” She repeated the phrase in front of teachers before the School Reform Commission meeting on Dec. 9, the complaint says.
Brown is the school’s fourth principal in five years. The school, at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, serves 900 students. About 70 percent are African American, 18 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent white.
The district says it has been “working diligently to address racial tensions and reduce violence.” An outside investigator is expected to submit a report later this week.
3/7/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Adults’ missteps detailed in S. Phila. High violence,”
By Jeff Gammage and Kristen A. Graham
On Dec. 3, as Asian students endured a daylong series of attacks at South Philadelphia High, the adults responsible for their safety were often confused or unsure how to respond.
The principal ordered a midmorning lockdown – designed to restrict student movement and move staffers to security posts – but some teachers weren’t notified.
Asian students, who last year were allowed to go home early when trouble broke out, were first told they could leave, then instructed to return to class.
In the nurse’s office, which housed injured Chinese students, including one with a broken nose, debate arose over who should call 911. Finally, the call was placed, not by school personnel but by a victim-witness counselor who had gone to the school.
Time after time Dec. 3, adults made decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information, as documented in the school district’s Feb. 23 report on the violence and in interviews for this article with teachers and students.
District officials said neither Superintendent Arlene Ackerman nor principal LaGreta Brown would be interviewed.
Michael Silverman, the regional superintendent who oversees South Philadelphia and other high schools, declined to discuss specific events that occurred Dec. 3. He said, however, that the violence had brought official scrutiny to how the school operated in a crisis.
“What we’ve done is really gone in and looked at all of their policies and procedures,” Silverman said. “I think the school has really had an opportunity to reflect and to know how to improve going forward.”
Ackerman, who ordered the inquiry that produced the report by retired federal Judge James T. Giles, has characterized it as “fair” and urged the public to move on from Dec. 3.
The report cites race as a factor in all the day’s attacks on Asian students, carried out by large groups of mostly African American students. It blames the violence on rumors that followed an after-school confrontation the previous day, including one that Asian youths had beaten a disabled African American student.
One student described the terror that engulfed Asians that day. “We are so scared. We are speechless,” said Bach Tong, a 16-year-old 10th grader.
That day, no one in the school leadership issued the equivalent of a “code red,” alerting staffers to the crisis, several teachers said.
“We found out by rumors, and teachers telling other teachers,” said one teacher, who asked not be identified because she feared retribution from school officials.
Ken Trump, a school-security expert, said that even in volatile situations when administrators didn’t have full information, they “should put out some type of alert saying, ‘We’re not exactly sure what’s going on, but just have some awareness.’ ”
Many schools make such announcements over the PA system, telling teachers, administrators, and support staff to check for a new e-mail message detailing what is known and how to proceed, said Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.
The teacher said she had learned of the attacks when she had seen an Asian student with a bloody mouth. Then another student asked to go to a doctor, and some asked to go home. No one called 911, the teacher said.
“We kept asking, ‘When can they go home?’ ” she said, citing past practice. “I’m not really clear on the protocol, and I don’t know that anybody else is, either.”
Ellen Somekawa, director of Asian Americans United, a Philadelphia organization, said the kindest characterization of the school leadership that day would be that “different adults had different perspectives on what the best course of action would be.”
Brown’s decision to move frightened students out of school and into the crowds, she said, constituted “an incredible lapse of judgment.”
At dismissal, a group of Vietnamese kids hung by an exit door, afraid to leave.
A school police officer was about to tell them to go back inside and take refuge in the school when Brown appeared with staff members in tow, according to the school report. The principal told the Vietnamese students to hurry up and follow her – they were leaving.
The officer didn’t interrupt to tell Brown that the kids had said they were afraid to go. And she didn’t ask.
Nor did Brown know that a contingent of Philadelphia police, stationed outside to ensure a safe dismissal, had been redeployed to handle a shooting elsewhere.
The principal led the 10 or 11 Vietnamese students, mostly girls, onto Broad Street – and into a horrific beating at the center of 100 youths.
The attackers, according to the report, included some white youths and a Cambodian girl.
The first assault of the day occurred at 8:15 a.m., when a group of predominantly African American students attacked an Asian youth in Classroom 424.
At 11 a.m., Brown ordered the lockdown. At that point, there was calm, the report said.
But at lunchtime, “a surge” of 30 to 40 African American students pushed onto the second floor, where Asian students gather for English-learner classes. The surge dispersed in the face of school police and staff.
Chaos broke out in the lunchroom hallway when 60 to 70 students surged toward a small group of Asians, and then in the lunchroom itself. Asians were punched and kicked in the head, hands, arms, and back, the report said.
Some Chinese students said the principal had assured them that it was safe to go to lunch. Brown did not recall saying that, the report said. As the students moved from the second floor into the lunchroom area, they were set upon and beaten.
Afterward, the report said, some frightened Asian students requested early dismissal. The previous year, after a similar “second-floor invasion,” a different principal let students leave once parents gave oral consent.
This time, the report said, Brown apparently approved a plan for Asian students to leave, then changed her mind. Even as parents were being phoned for consent, the decision was made that students younger than 18 could not leave without parental escort.
“It is not clear, however, that this change was communicated, or communicated clearly, to students and teachers,” the report said. “Some of the Asian students who tried to leave school with early-dismissal notes were sent back to class by school police officers.”
The principal, the report said, decided on a plan for “silent dismissal.” That is, no general bell would sound. Instead, students would be dismissed floor by floor.
In interviews, some teachers said they had never been told of that plan.
At 2:50 p.m., 14 minutes before the final bell was to ring, one teacher said, there was a knock at her door: A school police officer told her to dismiss class immediately.
“I said, ‘I’m in the middle of a lesson,’ but he said, ‘Your kids have got to leave now.’ ”
When the bell didn’t ring at 3:04, most teachers kept their students in class – apparently unaware of the silent-dismissal plan, according to teachers. Others let their classes depart.
Injured Chinese students in the nurse’s office said they had been told they must leave – and face the crowds outside. Two families of injured students showed up. One of them, the father of the youth with the broken nose, insisted that 911 be called.
But, the report said, there was “confusion over who would call 911 and who would pay for the cost of the students’ medical treatment at the hospital.”
A representative from Victim-Witness Services of South Philadelphia arrived and called 911 for an ambulance, the report said.
The school leadership had predicated the dismissal plan on a promise of a heavy city police presence outside. That beefed-up force was in place 30 minutes before dismissal. But by the time students left, some officers had been called to a shooting in front of Audenried High School.
School personnel were not told of the reduced police presence, according to the report. A Police Department spokeswoman, contacted for this article, said she could not immediately reply to questions on the matter.
That day, as the Vietnamese students left school with the principal, they told her and the other adults that they were afraid to walk home without a police escort.
Brown asked a city police sergeant stationed at Broad and Snyder Avenue to escort the students. He told her that walking kids home from school was not a police function, the report said.
When interviewed for the report, the sergeant said he had not known the school had been a battleground that day. If he had, he might have acted differently, the report said.
Brown said she would have made a different assessment, the report said, if she’d known police had been called away.
1/12/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Ackerman’s dithering has shaken confidence The schools chief’s answer to racial strife was tepid,”
by Paul Davies
Someone needs to tell Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman to get her head out of the sand.
Ackerman’s handling of the racial attacks on Asian American students at South Philadelphia High School has been a debacle at best, calling into question her ability to lead the failing school district. Her slow, tepid response made the crisis worse, and it increased fears among Asian American parents and students that the district can’t keep its kids safe.
In early December, a series of fights took place in and out of the school. About 30 Asian American kids were punched and smacked for no apparent reason other than the way they look. A handful needed hospital treatment for minor injuries.
In some instances, groups of students went from class to class looking for Asian students to beat up. One student said security officers at the school directed some Asian students into a lunchroom, where they were attacked. Other Asian students said their black classmates told them to go back to their country and hurled slurs at them such as “Dragon Ball” and “Bruce Lee.”
Instead of apologizing immediately and moving quickly to defuse the tensions and correct the problem, Ackerman has mostly dodged responsibility and shifted the blame. At every turn, she has appeared more and more tone-deaf and in need of sensitivity training.
It took Ackerman eight days to get around to visiting the school. Six days passed before she publicly responded to the incident. Even then, she offered a lukewarm apology in prepared remarks and took a defensive posture, saying the school district had been asked to “single-handedly solve the problems of violence and racial discord.”
Hey, Arlene, no one is asking you to bring about world peace and end racism. But a little compassion and some reassurance that school safety is a top priority would be nice.
The racial tensions between blacks and Asians at South Philadelphia High have been bubbling for years, and they have been mostly ignored by the district. Before the fights took place, members of the Asian American community tried to meet with the new principal but were blown off. It turns out that the principal had been pushed out of the school she was running in Atlantic City, raising questions about why she was even hired in Philadelphia.
Running South Philadelphia High requires a seasoned pro with the ability to manage a big, complex, urban high school. The majority of the school’s students are black, but there are also a number of Asian immigrants whose first language isn’t English. They are made fun of and harassed while school officials look the other way.
After the attacks, district officials claimed violence at the school had dropped 55 percent this year. That information turned out to be wrong: Assaults at the school had actually increased by 32 percent.
Then district officials said the attacks were sparked by an Asian American student who had jumped an African American student earlier in the week. But the incidents turned out to be unrelated.
After about 50 Asian students began boycotting the school, fearing for their safety, Ackerman initially rebuffed their request for a meeting. She finally met with them almost two weeks after the attacks.
At the meeting, Ackerman took a mostly harsh tone, ordering the kids back to school. Afterward, she accused the media of sensationalizing the incident.
Last week, the superintendent showed up uninvited at a meeting called by the state Human Relations Commission to hear from members of the Asian American community. She brought along a busload of kids from South Philadelphia High. Most of them were African American, and none of them were involved in the fights. This is akin to the head of US Airways showing up at a crash site with passengers from flights that landed on time.
At the meeting, Ackerman said the violence at the school was a result of a broader problem of violence and racism in the city. Basically, she said it was society’s fault. Why not blame the entire solar system?
To be sure, there’s some truth to what Ackerman was saying. But her tone and timing were off. The school district is responsible for what goes on under its roof. As the superintendent, Ackerman should be where the buck stops.
Instead, according to her spokeswoman, Ackerman said the issue was taking up too much of her time. But it’s burning up so much time because Ackerman has severely mismanaged it. When dozens of kids get pummeled because of their race and boycott school, that should become a top priority.
Granted, the school district has taken some steps to bolster security. But Ackerman’s bumbling and finger-pointing suggest she’s just going through the motions. Instead of trying to blow off the problem and acting put out about it, Ackerman needs to fix it.
Paul Davies is The Inquirer’s deputy editorial page editor.
12/11/09 press release: AALDEF To File Civil Rights Complaint Against Philadelphia School District
District’s failure to remedy rampant anti-Asian violence at South Philadelphia High School prompts action
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) announced today its intention to file a complaint for civil rights violations with the U.S. Department of Justice against the Philadelphia School District for failing to address the rampant violence against Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School (SPHS).
The complaint which will charge the District with violating SPHS Asian students’ Equal Protection rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution comes on the heels of the December 3, 2009 racial assaults at SPHS in which over two dozen Asian students were attacked throughout the day. Since December 3rd, Asian students from SPHS have boycotted the school citing fear for their safety and concern at the District’s repeated failure to address the widespread anti-Asian violence at the school.
Despite students’ attempts to meet with the Superintendent in a safe space to present their demands, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has refused to meet with students, their parents, and community leaders. Students and school staff supportive of the students’ concerns report feeling intimidated by district officials who are seeking to downplay the hostile climate of SPHS.
AALDEF staff attorney Cecilia Chen said: “The District, Superintendent and Principal of SPHS allowed the racial violence at SPHS to escalate to this point. It is unconscionable that, even now, the Superintendent still refuses to fully acknowledge the students’ concerns for their safety and the climate of SPHS.”
For several years, AALDEF has worked with students from Lafayette High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to address anti-Asian violence at the school. Lafayette entered into Consent Decree with the U.S. Department of Justice after a DOJ investigation determined that the school had remained deliberately indifferent to the severe racial harassment against Asian immigrant students.
Chen added: “The severe, rampant and unchecked nature of the racially motivated attacks against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School far exceeds what I have seen.”
12/11/09 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Annette John-Hall: Weak response to school beatings,” by Annette John-Hall
Beaten and still bruised, physically and otherwise – but here to tell about it – Asian students from South Philadelphia High met this week with School District administrators.
In one emotional testimony after another, they described the brutal beatings they endured a week ago in and near the school. The father of Chaofel Zheng raised his son’s shirt to show a bruise from the assault, just in case the teen’s black eye weren’t evidence enough.
“I hope,” Zheng said, “that security will put more care into us.”
About 150 student supporters carried signs. But one sign said it all: “Grown-ups let us down.”
Grown-ups like the cafeteria workers who allegedly turned their backs on the fighting.
And the security guards who made the victims leave school property – even though the students feared the walk home. And rightly so.
And the adult staffers at the school who allegedly made fun of them frequently.
They can add one more grown-up to the list.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, I’m sorry to say.
Yes, I’m talking about you, Superintendent. Especially after your slow response and dismissive performance at the meeting in front of the hurt and outraged students – your students – and parents who hoped for more from you.
Since you were hired 20 months ago, you’ve said the right things. Made big pronouncements about how you were going to make your administration more user-friendly. Vowed to put the children first and make school safety a top priority.
And judging from the way you talked, it seemed that grown-up accountability – you know, the process of holding adults responsible for their actions or inactions – was the one thing you were committed to enforcing.
“We’ve got plenty of accountability for the students that we serve and not nearly enough for the adults who serve them,” you said then.
So what did you say, Superintendent, when so-called responsible adults didn’t intervene as a rogue group of African American students attacked Asian schoolmates so severely that many had to seek hospital treatment?
You linked the assaults to retaliation for an unwarranted attack off campus on a disabled black student by two Asian students the day before.
But how do you explain that these Asian students have been victimized for the last 18 months? Or that this time, random Asian students were targeted, as one community activist pointed out?
“We don’t have to get into a back-and-forth about that,” you responded.
Well, then. You know those sensitivity classes you’re talking about?
Chinese and Vietnamese students, some of whom have been here for only a few months and barely speak English, courageously described, in excruciating detail, how they’ve been relentlessly teased and taunted by adult support staffers. “Hey, Chinese.” “Hey, Dragon Ball.” “Yo, Bruce Lee. Where are you from? Speak English.”
You don’t have to wonder why 50 students have boycotted classes since Monday at a school where some adults allegedly condone such ignorant actions. I can’t say I’d send my own kid back under those conditions.
We all know the problem can’t be solved in a day.
Still, it would have eased the students’ hurt if, Ms. Ackerman, you at least genuinely showed that you cared.
It’s bad enough that you waited four days to publicly respond to a gang attack at one of your schools. But it was even worse on Wednesday, watching you sit there dispassionately, as though you were listening to your voice mails, when students asked for an apology.
You know, a simple but powerful gesture that says, ” ‘I’m sorry that this happened to you, I’m sorry for the slow response time, I’m sorry that we have not stood with you earlier,’ ” said Ellen Somekawa of Asian Americans United.
Which is the human thing to do.
But how did you, the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District, respond?
With silence. Defensive, deafening silence.
And then, you didn’t take questions afterward.
Finally, an apology
At least School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie took the cue and apologized to the students “on behalf of the SRC.”
Look, Dr. Ackerman. I realize you’ve taken some action – hired an outside investigator, increased security, suspended some of the kids involved, and put together a task force to get to the root of the problem. It’s no more than any good administrator would and should do.
And you do recognize the problem is bigger than South Philly High. You said it yourself. The violence “is only the symptom of a more serious problem which has its roots in racism. . . . It is the proverbial elephant in the room.”
Most leaders would not have been so forthright.
But you have to realize that all of the investigative findings, sensitivity training, and task forces for racial and cultural harmony won’t quickly solve the problems at a persistently dangerous school where violence is up 32 percent under a new principal.
And that’s violence against everyone – black, white, Latino, and Asian.
It takes a bold pronouncement on your part, a swift apology on behalf of the district and an unwavering vow that any kind of violence against any of your students will not be tolerated, to send a universal message, one understood in any language.
You shouldn’t have to have your hand forced before you take that stand.
Just think if it had been one of your children.
12/10/09 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Asian students describe violence at South Philadelphia High,”
by Kristen A. Graham
In emotional testimony yesterday, Asian students described being victimized at South Philadelphia High for years, often as school staffers stood by, encouraged the attackers, or hurled racial slurs.
Duyngoc Truong, a South Philadelphia student who was beaten last week, told the School Reform Commission that being let down by those in charge “hurt our bodies, it also hurt our hearts. We have the right to go to school and we need to be treated fairly.”
The meeting was a dramatic crescendo in a situation that began Dec. 2, school officials said, when a disabled African American student was beaten up by two Asian students outside school.
The next day, large groups of African American and Asian students attacked at least 30 Asian students, seven of whom required treatment at a hospital. Some of the attackers went from room to room, looking for students to target. District officials said the Thursday attacks were retaliatory, but Helen Gym, a board member of Asian American United, challenged that.
“By linking the two incidents, which involved two absolutely different sets of youth, the district seems to imply that there’s an undercurrent of justification for what happened on Thursday,” Gym said.
Officials announced last night that an outside investigator would probe what happened, beginning next week.
Six African American students and four Asian students have been suspended, and police and School District investigations are ongoing.
In her first remarks on the subject, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the South Philadelphia violence “is only a symptom of a more serious problem which has its roots in racism – not only in our schools, but in the larger community. It is the proverbial elephant in the room.”
She warned the audience not to blame one racial group for the violence.
Ackerman said that the district had beefed up security in and around the school and formed a Task Force for Racial and Cultural Harmony to recommend changes, both at South Philadelphia and districtwide. A U.S. Department of Justice program will work with students on racial and ethnic issues, she said.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will also address the situation at a previously scheduled Dec. 21 meeting in Philadelphia.
About 200 Asian students and community supporters packed the meeting, waving signs that read “Stop School Violence” and “Grown-ups Let Us Down.” More than a dozen testified, some through translators.
Fifty Asian students are boycotting South Philadelphia this week, investigating the incident and possible changes on their own.
Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United, said the attacks against Asian students were disturbing, but more so was the district’s reaction, which she characterized as slow and defensive. Almost a week later, some students involved have still not been interviewed, Somekawa said.
“We have seen a total lack of moral leadership,” Somekawa said.
District spokeswoman Evelyn Sample-Oates said the situation was complex and the investigation would be thorough.
“We’re trying to get names,” Sample-Oates said. “Many kids don’t want to give names, which we understand.”
Somekawa described students at the school being mocked by staff: ” ‘Where are you from? Hey, Chinese. Yo, Dragon Ball. Are you Bruce Lee? Speak English,’ ” quoting what students had told her.
Troung, the South Philadelphia student, recited a litany of problems with school staff. She singled out the security officers, who she claimed forced Asian students to follow them into a lunchroom where they were attacked and who directed the frightened students to leave school after they were beaten.
Yan Zheng, another student, said that when students were fighting in the lunch room last Thursday, “the lunch lady did not do anything to stop them, and went around cheering happily. . . . The staff shouldn’t just stand there and watch and say, ‘Stopping fights is not my job.’ ”
Duong Thang Ly said the school’s security officers “are the big problem,” saying they looked the other way when a group of African American students interrupted a lunch line and heckled a group of Asian students. They ignored groups of students as they roamed during class time, Ly said.
It’s not just Asian students who are suffering, Truong said.
“Most of the students at South Philadelphia High School – Asian, African American, Latino and white – are just like us. They are trying to get an education in a school where they do not feel safe or respected,” said Truong.
Xu Lin, a community organizer for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. who works closely with South Philadelphia students, said immigrant students are often not provided with appropriate language assistance when they report incidents.
“When Asian students report incidents, the school officials in the building often do not respond professionally,” Lin said. “Many incidents went neglected.”
Lin said South Philadelphia’s new principal, LaGreta Brown, had been unresponsive to the Asian community.
Brown did not attend yesterday’s meeting and has not been available to comment on the allegations.
Sample-Oates, the district spokeswoman, said all staff will be held accountable and disciplined if found culpable.
A New York civil rights attorney drew parallels to a 2004 situation at a Brooklyn school where Chinese immigrant students were attacked.
“The severe, rampant and unchecked nature of the racially motivated attacks against Asian students at South Philadelphia far exceeds what I have seen” in Brooklyn, testified Cecilia Chen, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.
The four commissioners listened to more than three hours of sometimes painful testimony. After several speakers said they felt the district had not appropriately apologized, Chairman Robert Archie Jr. said that the SRC and district “want to say we’re sorry for the injuries that you sustained as a result of the incidents which took place in South Philadelphia. . . . We’re going to move with all deliberate speed to try to address this issue.”
Commissioner David F. Girard-diCarlo said he welcomed the outside investigation. “Clearly, from the comments that we received, we do need to evaluate the conduct of our adults to make sure that we have balanced appropriately where the problems really lie,” he said.
In an interview, another commissioner, Johnny Irizarry, said the district needs to enforce a diversity policy adopted 15 years ago.
“Either we continue to live in sustaining or almost approving violence by not intervening,” Irizarry said, “or we say, ‘OK, this is the time that we make radical change.’ ”
12/20/09 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Standing up for victimized students,”
by Jeff Gammage and Kristen A. Graham
The day after 30 Asian students were attacked by a group of mostly African American classmates at South Philadelphia High School, senior Wei Chen stood surrounded by a swarm of TV cameras.
Amid the glare and tussle, Chen assuredly answered reporters’ questions, pointing out that many black youths had befriended Asian students, and saying it was school supervisors who had failed. Then he handed out something most teenagers don’t carry: his business card.
People wondered: Who is this kid?
The answer: He’s a whole lot of things.
Chen, 18, is articulate, smart, and frighteningly organized. He’s never on time for meetings – he’s there early, to help set up.
He possesses remarkable poise, stony determination, and a more than ample quantity of guts. When many Asian students hid their faces behind protest signs, afraid they would be identified and beaten up, Chen stood front and center.
Mostly, having been swept to the streets of South Philadelphia from the shores of southeast China less than three years ago, he’s someone pushing the school district to address long-standing problems of violence. Within a week, starting with that tense Dec. 4 news conference at a Chinatown church, he emerged as a leader.
“He is always calm,” said Xu Lin, an organizer with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. who often translates for Chen. “When some of the students were losing their tempers, he’d calm them down.”
The Dec. 3 attack sent seven students to hospitals and sparked a contentious, eight-day boycott by about 50 Asian students. Throughout, the youth with the long hair and immaculately laced, deliberately untied NSS sneakers was the most visible. The standoff ended Wednesday after students met with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
“It could be dangerous to show my picture in the media, but I have nothing to hide,” Chen said in an interview last week. “What I say is from the heart.”
Teens who know Chen say he’s a steady presence, personable and dependable.
“He’s the type of guy who is very mature,” said Tatman Chio, 15, who stood with Chen during the boycott although he attends Benjamin Franklin High.
Helen Gym, a board member at Asian Americans United, said she was struck by Chen’s composure when he testified before the School Reform Commission on Dec. 9, facing a board of heavyweights.
“At 18, he’s doing what people haven’t done for a very long time, which is take a stand around youth safety at schools,” said Gym, who is among the city’s most prominent advocates.
Asked whether she thought Chen would become the next Helen Gym, she said, “Oh, he’s going to be light-years beyond me.”
Chen performs Chinese opera, writes calligraphy, and works in papercut, the art of snipping plain sheets into magical, see-through images of animals and deities. He wants to learn graffiti art. And hip-hop dance.
Chen grew up in Fujian Province, where the people forever stare out at the sea and wonder what lies across it.
When Chen was 9, his father emigrated to the United States, undertaking that complicated legal process in hopes of assuring his children a brighter future. A job in construction allowed him to send money to his family to build a strong, hurricane-proof house in China.
Seven years passed before Chen saw his father again.
He, his mother, and two sisters arrived here in January 2007. Chen’s mother prepared her then-15-year-old son by talking about the American dream, how hard work brought financial reward.
The family settled in South Philadelphia, which during the last 30 years has filled with immigrants from Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. The tight housing market in Chinatown, for more than a century the regional gateway for Asian émigrés, has forced newcomers to settle farther south and north.
For Chen, day-to-day reality was not the lofty aspirations of the American dream, but a school where he struggled to speak the language and where Asians were taunted and punched. Many among the school’s Asian minority – the student body is 70 percent African American – are learning English.
Chen realized something else: In the United States, he was permitted to speak up. As a teen in China, he knew protesting against the government could lead to jail. Here, he heard teachers talk about the groups and people who fought for change across more than 200 years of American history.
Around him, Chen saw a school with a sizable Asian population, 18 percent among 927 students, but divided by ethnicity. The Chinese youths were divided even among themselves by language.
Some spoke Mandarin, some Cantonese, others Fujianese, a dialect that’s almost a separate language.
Chen wanted to bring them together – and, sadly, violence provided an impetus. In October 2008, five Asian students were chased into the Snyder Avenue subway station and beaten.
Three months later, Chen founded the Chinese American Student Association, and has twice been elected its president.
He told the students to speak Mandarin, the language taught in Chinese schools, so they could communicate. And he told them that if they had a problem, they should call him for help.
“I wanted to help the new students to learn American language and culture,” Chen said. “This country will help you address your goals, but not give them to you. You have to be hardworking.”
It was the beginning of an organization furthered and connected by QQ, the Chinese instant-messaging service, that eventually coalesced around the boycott.
Chen said the tumult of last week – the walkout, the district’s promises of improved safety – were a start, not an end. New student leaders must step forward. He will graduate in June.
His plan is to keep improving his English and head first to a two-year college, then to a major institution. He wants to study communications and social work, and continue to advocate for the Asian community.
“But not only for the Asian community. For different cultures and languages,” he said. “The long-term solution should be that people from different backgrounds should communicate.”
12/18/09 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Attacking immigrant students not new, say those involved,”
by Kristen A. Graham and Jeff Gammage
Soon after Superintendent Arlene Ackerman arrived in Philadelphia in 2008, officials set up what was to be a friendly meeting with parents and representatives from immigrant groups.
The meeting lasted two hours and focused on one issue, according to people present: Immigrants were being beaten and harassed in city classrooms. What would the district do?
Then, in October last year, five Asian students from South Philadelphia High School were attacked near the subway station outside the school.
Leaders of the Asian community quietly met with district officials, who promised better security. A Chinese student group formed.
As that school year unfolded, immigrant students were attacked at Fels, Furness, and South Philadelphia High Schools. In the summer, members of the Asian community met with district leaders and the new South Philadelphia principal.
Officials promised to monitor the targeted students, especially at South Philadelphia, and said conditions would improve, according to people who attended.
But little changed, and on Dec. 3, 30 more Asian students were attacked. Seven required hospital treatment, and 50 students launched a boycott that lasted seven days.
“This particular incident was horrible because of the magnitude, but this isn’t new,” said Zac Steele, an organizer with Juntos, a South Philadelphia Latino advocacy group. “The school district knows about all of this. They’ve known.”
Through a spokeswoman, Ackerman said she had put fixes in place after her first meeting with the immigrant community – more translators and bilingual security officers. No one told her more was needed.
“To her understanding, things had been put in place and there weren’t any great issues outstanding,” spokeswoman Evelyn Sample-Oates said. “She didn’t know of any breakdown, that there were issues remaining. A big part of this is that a lot of the students don’t report violence because they’re afraid.”
While the latest confrontation involved mostly African American students allegedly beating Asian students, immigrants of all races have long felt unsafe in city schools, dozens of students, recent graduates, teachers, and activists said in interviews.
Immigrants are easy targets, said Wei Chen, a South Philadelphia senior and president of the South Philadelphia High School Chinese-American Student Association.
“They think the new students cannot speak the language and will not report [the assault] to the school,” he said through an interpreter.
“Most immigrants at South Philly High, if not all of them, have been intimidated or beaten up,” said a newcomer from Honduras, a recent graduate.
As manager of Boat People SOS-Delaware Valley Branch, Nancy Nguyen has worked with Vietnamese youths who attend South Philadelphia High, where, she said, there’s conflict between immigrant and native-born students.
“They get laughed at when they try to speak English,” she said. “And the really heart-wrenching things are the small physical attacks. They get tripped when they walk down a hallway.”
The problem has been particularly acute in South Philadelphia, where the Asian population has been growing for years and where Spanish-speaking immigrants have in recent years begun to settle.
Massive South Philadelphia High, at Broad and Snyder, is a complicated place – five stories and about 900 students, 84 percent of them needy. One in four needs special-education services.
Southern, as it is known, has had four principals in five years. About 70 percent of its students are African American, 18 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent white. Twelve percent are considered “English-language learners,” representing at least 18 languages. The most commonly spoken of them are Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Cambodian.
District officials admit the problem has deep roots.
Two recent graduates of South Philadelphia High from Honduras stressed that the violence isn’t limited to Asian students. The two asked that their names be withheld because they lack documents to live in the U.S. legally.
“You always felt like you were in danger,” one said.
“You have to be dressing similar to the other kids, or talking like them, or you get jumped,” the second added.
Shortly after the first student arrived in the United States and registered at South Philadelphia, he was in the lunch line when an African American student motioned to him and said something. The student didn’t know that the young man wanted to cut in front of him in line. He just stood there.
The other boy punched him.
“I didn’t want to the tell the police,” he said. “I was too afraid.”
South Philadelphia High’s second floor has mostly been devoted to English for Speakers of Other Languages classes. To immigrant students, the floor felt like a haven of quiet and learning in an otherwise chaotic building. This year, teachers said, new principal LaGreta Brown told them that she wanted to end the second-floor arrangement.
“If you don’t have a system where everyone’s integrated, there are problems,” said Michael Silverman, the regional superintendent.
The enclave also stirred resentment, teachers said.
“There’s resentment for people who would love to have the same sense of community, the same sense of calmness,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. On other floors, students walk out of class “with no fear. They have nothing to lose. It’s chaos,” the teacher added.
While some meaningful learning does go on at the school, “it can be bleak.”
Even before the attacks, overall violence and assaults at the school were up over the same period from the year before, and the school was on the state’s “persistently dangerous” list, a designation under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
But the problem stretches back decades.
Lai Har Cheung was 8 when her family settled near the Italian Market in the early 1980s, among the first Asians to move into what was a largely white neighborhood.
The harassment started immediately, she said. Cheung said she had heard racial slurs daily – kids would bang on her family’s door and run. Her house was pelted with eggs. She was beaten by flute-wielding student.
She felt powerless, she said.
“You begin to think that’s the norm, that everyone gets initiated that way,” Cheung said. “It was emotional, psychological harassment.”
Cheung, now 33 and a child advocate and mentor, said the cycle should have stopped with her generation.
Jan Ting, a Temple University law professor who studies immigration, said newcomers often suffered.
“You can’t do anything about your race. And you really can’t do anything about your accent. It’s bad enough you look different than anybody else, but you sound different, too,” Ting said.
Duong Thang Ly, a senior from Vietnam, said his issue was not with the attackers, but with the adults.
“No one in school helped us get along with each other, and that led to the situation getting worse,” Ly said.
Now back in school, the boycotting teens were promised more security and programs to help students from different backgrounds get along. But they returned saying they were “suspending” their boycott, and plans remain for a federal civil-rights complaint.
“They still have concerns,” Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, said of the students. “They’re keeping their options open.”
12/16/09 Philadelphia Public School Notebook (http://www.thenotebook.org) “Arlene Ackerman’s ‘elephant in the room'”
by Ron Whitehorne
The attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High raise difficult questions about the role of racism in our schools, our city, and our country. Arlene Ackerman, addressing students, parents, and community members at the SRC meeting, called it the “elephant in the room.”
Unfortunately in her remarks before and after the meeting, Ackerman has fallen short in providing the leadership to help us understand what happened, and how we can move forward. But others, fortunately, have taken up the slack.
The facts, as related by the students and community leaders who have been working to improve the climate at the school, paint a disturbing picture in which Asian immigrants have been ridiculed, harassed, and subjected to violence by other students with the complicity of many of the adults, particularly security staff. District leadership has failed to aggressively address this problem in spite of clear warning signs.
Given the strong currents in our culture that stereotype young African American men as violent and serve to justify repressive laws and policies that target the Black community, the way the attacks are characterized is important. Many, particularly those on the political right, see incidents like the attacks at South Philadelphia High as confirmation of their view that urban violence is an expression of the moral and political shortcomings of African Americans.
As one speaker at the community forum held by Asian Americans United to support the students pointed out, racial violence between Latinos, Asians, and African Americans is a fact of life in South Philadelphia. No one group has a monopoly on victimhood.
But this can’t be used to sidestep the fact that there are deeply rooted prejudices toward Asians and immigrants our society. Nativist sentiment rooted in White supremacy has a long, ugly history in our country. One of the most brutal chapters in this history is the persecution and violence directed against Chinese immigrants who worked the mines and built the railroads in the West, culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II with barely a whimper of protest is further testimony to the depth of anti-Asian prejudice.
Today we see a strong movement against immigrants of color, scapegoating them for the decline in working class living standards. This movement has found its strongest popular expression among Whites of European origin who have elevated demagogues like Lou Dobbs to national prominence. But no group is immune from the steady diet of anti-immigrant sentiment that draws on deeply rooted prejudices in our culture. In our city, because immigrants of color typically are living in neighborhoods and attending schools in which African Americans are the majority, the conflict is most overt between these groups.
One of the unfortunate ironies of our history as a nation is that newly arrived immigrants have tended to assimilate the White supremacist ideology of the dominant Anglo-European majority, proving their “Americaness” by supporting discrimination and violence against Blacks who were consigned to the bottom rung in America’s caste system.
Meanwhile African Americans are encouraged to target immigrants as threats to their jobs and standard of living while the corporate elite, made up almost exclusively of White people, profits from the exploitation of both groups. As one speaker at the community forum pointed out, it’s all about divide and conquer.
To their credit, the Asian students, and the adults supporting them, have been careful to avoid racial scapegoating and stereotyping, consistently pointing out that school violence threatens all students and pointing out that the main failure here has been those adults charged with the safety of our schools. At the community rally, they did not ignore the elephant in the room, but have called it out in a way that benefits us all.
As Ellen Somekawa, executive director of AAU, said, “It is a racial issue not because of the race of the attackers…but because students were targeted for attack because they were Asian.”
AAU member Lai Har Cheung, in an emotional speech at the community forum, vented her frustration. “I’m sick of seeing African Americans villainized and Asians victimized.”
A great moment at the rally on Sunday was when, in blogger Eric Braxton’s words, ”Six African American students from the Philadelphia Student Union took the stage and spoke in support of the Asian students and in favor of schools that work for everyone. Maybe the rest of us can learn something from these students.”
Maybe we can, and maybe we can begin to forge unity based on recognizing that an injury to one is an injury to all. Let’s bring down the elephant.
3/31/2010: “More violence and failure at South Philadelphia High School: What hasn’t changed at all,”
by Helen Gym
It’s been almost four months since the Dec. 3 violence at South Philadelphia High School. How are things going?
Two weeks ago, a recent immigrant Chinese student testified at the School Reform Commission about ongoing violence at the school. He and his brother had arrived at Southern post-Dec. 3, but heard about the violence on their very first day. Earlier this month, his brother’s head cracked against a wall after two students at the school kicked a bathroom door into his face as he was coming out. The boy’s parents received an urgent call from their son inside the school, but were turned away by school security while they struggled to explain why they were there.
Following the testimony at the SRC the parents got a call from the school to return. Although they were at the school for more than two hours, the parents never once saw South Philly High Principal LaGreta Brown, who was in the building, nor did they get a follow-up call about their son from anyone at the school.
So this boy travels thousands of miles to go to school at South Philly and hears about anti-Asian violence on his very first day. But no one at the school ever bothered to orientate the boy or his family toward any policies for new immigrant students; no one ever discussed a safety plan in case of harassment or introduced the boy and his family to concerned personnel at the school who could address any concerns the boy or his family had. Instead, the boy becomes yet another on-going stat in the litany of continued negligence of school and District officials at South Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the tragic suicide of a young Irish immigrant girl in Massachusetts earlier this year has school and local officials across the country rethinking their responsibilities around bullying and harassment.
The case bears terrible similarities to what’s been happening at South Philadelphia High School for years. Most of the bullying was during school hours and on school grounds. The girl was targeted because she was from a different country, according to one peer. There was physical harassment as well as verbal. And the harassment was done in full view of school officials:
“The investigation revealed relentless activities directed toward Phoebe to make it impossible for her to stay at school,” Ms. Scheibel said. The conduct of those charged, she said, “far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels.”
It was particularly alarming, the district attorney said, that some teachers, administrators and other staff members at the school were aware of the harassment but did not stop it. “The actions or inactions of some adults at the school were troublesome,” Ms. Scheibel said, but did not violate any laws.
As a result of her suicide and a recent civil lawsuit by a gay teenager who was also tormented until he was forced to leave his school, the Massachusetts legislature is moving on an anti-bullying law; the D.A. just this week moved to issue felony indictments against nine of the girl’s high school classmates this week; and serious dialogue is had in the school and District about their responsibilities.
Let’s contrast that with what’s happened at South Philadelphia since the Dec. 3 violence: denial and scoldings toward community advocates who had made this issue take up “too much time” for Supt. Arlene Ackerman; a $100,000 “investigation” that left us with little new information; retaliation against specific students; and an entrenched administration which has protected the irresponsible actions of Principal LaGreta Brown, Regional Supt. Michael Silverman and others; and a complete lack of dialogue with Asian community advocates and student boycotters who have been active for more than a year in addressing violence at South Philly High.
It’s not just the school district. The silence from any city and state agency on the on-going violence has been deafening as well. Not the Mayor. The D.A. Not a single state legislator, nor the governor (this is a state run school system after all). Only the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has made some initial forays into tackling the issue head on.
What’s remarkable about what’s happening here is how localized violence becomes institutionalized. School and city officials have a clear responsibility for the welfare of children in our schools and a moral imperative to send a strong message about anti-immigrant, anti-Asian hate in our city. They sent an unequivocal message around flash mobs. But there’s been not a word when it comes to anti-Asian, anti-immigrant hate and the failure of school officials to do anything about it. Instead, there’s been public support issued for the District from both city and state officials.
It’s telling that the District report released last month declared that things had improved at S. Philadelphia HS, and as its measure said that nothing on the scale of Dec. 3 had happened since – as if that is now the new standard.
But as one new family now knows, despite all the claims by District officials, not enough has changed for Asian immigrant students.
3/30/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Asians find Phila. schools an unexpected experience,”
By Jeff Gammage
In the years before Ming Chen came to the United States, he imagined his American education:
His school would be a place of learning and knowledge, where students helped one another achieve.
Chen arrived here from China in August and enrolled at South Philadelphia High School the next month. On Dec. 3, he was attacked in the lunchroom during a daylong assault on Asian students by groups of mostly African American classmates.
Today, he struggles to reconcile how he could be physically assaulted – he suffered a bloody mouth and bruises – in what he was certain would be a center of scholarship and friendship. “School should be a place to learn, to study, not a place to fight,” Chen, 21, said through a translator.
The Dec. 3 violence has spawned three separate, official investigations by federal, Philadelphia School District, and human-relations officials. Asian immigrant students say what has not been discussed is their profound sense of shock, the disconnect and disparity between the reception they envisioned from a far shore and what they actually experienced in school.
In interviews with The Inquirer, eight students described that chasm between expectation and reality.
“Sometimes, I wonder what’s wrong with me, that I don’t get accepted,” said Bach Tong, a 16-year-old 10th grader from Vietnam. “School is supposed to be the safest place, besides home.”
Tong, like most others interviewed, has been in the United States less than three years, his parents having left behind everything in hope their son could snare the gold ring of a U.S. education. Before immigrating, students said, their knowledge of U.S. schools came from watching movies and TV.
Mu Lin Liu, 18, had no idea what he was walking into when he arrived at South Philadelphia High on what he said was either Dec. 6 or 7.
He expected he and the American students would “all become friends.” It never entered his mind he might be a target. But on his first day, in the aftermath of the Dec. 3 violence, the building practically vibrated with anxiety.
“I was very, very surprised and shocked,” the ninth grader said through a translator.
His father had left Fuzhou, China, for the United States, to work and save money so the family could follow, when Liu was 3. Liu was 16 when they met again. That kind of separation is typical among families of Chinese immigrant students.
In countries such as China, many struggle to pay school fees and view free public education as an exceptional benefit.
Through the first months of school, Liu said, he and his brother managed to avoid trouble. But this month, he said, his brother was exiting a bathroom stall when a student on the outside deliberately kicked the door inward, slamming it into the youth.
Regarding Dec. 3, the School District inquiry attributed the violence to rumors that sprang from an altercation involving Asian and African American students the previous day. It said most of the victims were recent immigrants, but found insufficient proof to conclude Asians were attacked solely because of that status.
Community advocates and student leaders, however, say that Asian and particularly Asian immigrant students are routinely slapped, tripped, and punched – and that administrators ignored years of complaints.
The Dec. 3 violence sent seven Asians to hospitals and led to a seven-day boycott of classes by about 50 students. Nineteen students were suspended, and 14 transferred to alternative schools. Five transfers were overturned.
In Philadelphia, Asians comprise a small minority, 5.7 percent of the population, and they account for roughly the same percentage of total district enrollment. But that figure more than triples inside Southern, as the high school is known, to 18 percent.
The neighborhood has been changing since the 1980s, when large numbers of Southeast Asian refugees resettled. Now it’s a frequent first stop for Asian newcomers, who enter a school that is 70 percent African American, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent white.
Some Asian students traveled here to be reunited with parents they barely knew. Others found themselves largely on their own, their sponsoring relatives having left for other cities.
“In some sense, they have a great deal more opportunity than they did at home. In some cases, they face barriers here they never thought they’d face,” Amanda Bergson-Shilcock of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians said of the Asian students.
She supervises the agency’s five-year-old program at Southern, which helps 200 students, 60 percent of them born overseas. Most of the foreign students have been in the country less than two years.
They are simultaneously trying to learn English, grasp the content of their studies, and adapt to a new culture where the slightest social interactions can be fraught: How much eye contact is polite? How close should they stand to someone?
The act of leaving everything – country, language, food, family – is itself traumatic, said Godelive Muttu, a coordinator for Lutheran Children and Family Services.
“When they’re in school and experience violence, that is re-traumatizing,” Muttu said. “There is no safe place. That is the message to them. There is no safe place.”
Experts say that these days, the United States offers a harsh climate for immigrants of all ethnicities. Groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center say immigrants often are victims of violence and routinely are blamed for crime, unemployment, and terrorism.
“First-generation Asian kids really, really work hard – there’s no other way to say it,” said Fariborz Ghadar, a Pennsylvania State University professor who directs the Center for Global Business Studies. “Their SAT scores are good, their grades are good. And there is backlash by American kids who see these guys as major competitors in the classroom.
“All of a sudden, here are kids that work their butts off, don’t really play well on their Xboxes, are not particularly athletic – criteria that our teenagers think are important.”
The district inquiry, issued last month, said race was a factor in the attacks. Other investigations are proceeding through the Justice Department, the result of a complaint filed by an Asian legal group, and the state Human Relations Commission.
“We went to America to get an education, not to be in violence, not to be victims,” said Duong Nghe Ly, an 18-year-old junior from Vietnam.
Ly’s parents fled from Vietnam in 1990, making their way to Thailand. Ly was born there, in a refugee camp, two years later. When he was 4, the United Nations cut off funding for the camps and his family was forced to return to Vietnam.
In Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, Ly’s parents survived by running a noodle stand in front of their home. They scraped to pay for their son’s schooling, while undertaking a 12-year effort to move to the United States.
“I expected I would have a lot of American friends as my English improved, like I saw on TV,” he said. “I found it was not that easy.”
In interviews, students said that they generally believed their teachers cared about them – and that they were learning. Several cited the English-language teachers as particularly kind and helpful.
The second floor of Southern, where those classes are centered, has been a refuge, students said. They fear district officials will pursue discussions about breaking it up.
Phuong Truong, a 17-year-old junior, said that on his first day in school he saw Asians in the lunchroom pelted with anything that could be thrown – food, trays, oranges, milk.
In an interview, he struggled to convey his disbelief.
“I thought of it as someplace very safe, with friendly teachers and friendly friends,” said Truong, who came from Vietnam in 2008.
Before immigrating, Tong, the 10th grader, lived in Tra Vinh, a city in the Mekong Delta region. His father was a farmer, his mother a cashier.
His parents told him they were moving to the United States the night before the family got on the plane. The couple had feared that alerting their son in advance would upset his schoolwork.
The family arrived in April 2008, and Tong enrolled at Southern that fall. He sought American friends, but found language a barrier. Then, in October, several Asians were attacked at the Snyder Avenue subway stop.
Tong was astonished. His parents were so upset they scouted possible new homes in New Jersey.
Now Tong doesn’t tell his parents when Asians are harassed. He worries they’ll move, and he wants to stay with his Vietnamese friends. He just wishes his school was more what he had imagined: “Nearly perfect.”
“The District’s South Philly High story unravels”
by Helen Gym
It’s hard to imagine that a story that first comes to public light exposing a day-long series of attacks against dozens of Asian immigrant kids can get any worse with time. But indeed, somehow the story about anti-Asian violence at South Philadelphia High School keeps getting more and more outrageous as a relentless pattern of school and District misrepresentation becomes more apparent.
In riveting testimony earlier this week at the School Reform Commission, the grandmother of one of the Asian student victims wept as she described the calculated efforts of school personnel who had scapegoated and unjustly forced out her grandson following a brutal assault upon him December 2.
Her grandson was harassed in school then severely beaten outside of school the day before the December 3 attacks at South Philadelphia High School. The school never investigated the incident yet somehow punished the student, arguing first that the student had attacked a “disabled” African American student thereby triggering the December 3 violence. When that story unraveled he was then cast as a gang member by school officials as part of their new narrative that December 3 was located in gang violence and a broader pandemic of violence throughout the city.
He was one of the students suspended then transferred out of South Philly High as part of the story that December 3 was a “multiracial assault” “reminiscent of street gang conflict.” It was a story that made it to highest levels of the School District and referenced by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and an official District investigation.
Who therefore evades scrutiny? Anyone at the school or District despite the fact that community advocates had documented for more than a year a dozen meetings about on-going anti-Asian violence at Southern and pleas that went unheeded by school and District officials.
As Isaiah Thompson points out here in this week’s cover story at the City Paper:
Though never mentioned by name, this student, who speaks little English, became part of a convenient narrative for a District that wanted to paint these events as being less about the long-standing victimization of a targeted ethnic minority than the result of a feud gone haywire. After all, with the latter explanation, school officials couldn’t be blamed for ignoring the powder keg that was about to blow.
In the process, a young boy became the central focus of a relentless campaign by the District who first painted him as a troublemaker then a gang member in order to fit their narrative. Not only did the District fail in its due process (failures in communication, lack of translation) they also accused him of participating in an attack the previous year – even though he was living in another state.
It’s belated gratification to note that District officials are today announcing steps to clear the boy’s name. It took a family that wouldn’t accept the abuse, a hard hitting cover in the City Paper, weeks of front page stories at the Inquirer and other media coverage to make happen what three months of meetings could not.
But it’s an indication to what lengths the school and District have gone in order to avoid assumption of responsibility for the violence at South Philadelphia High. Since Dec. 3, the District and school have engaged in a deliberate pattern of behavior to misrepresent what’s been happening at South Philadelphia High School and who’s been responsible. It’s why Asian community advocates have not been able to “move forward” as Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has declared we ought to.
Consider the testimony of the numerous youth and advocates who testified yesterday about why the District’s actions post-December 3 have been as just as shocking and shameful as what happened on that day.
• Failing to acknowledge that the attacks reflected anti-Asian, anti-immigrant violence: “The students who were attacked on December 3 were targeted because of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and the accents in their voices. Period. . . Rather than rush to the scene and decry racial violence, express concern for the victims, and commit to combatting bias, the District response has been to distort and minimize – dismiss, deny, and obscure the scale and nature of these attacks.” – Ellen Somekawa, Asian Americans United
• Not listening to students: Tram Nguyen of Victim Witness Services of South Philadelphia said one of the key elements to crisis response is to provide “ventilation and validation” to victims, but testified that there were “repeated obstacles put in place to make it almost impossible for the students to share their stories. When they were allowed to talk they were also told how much their story was hurting other students at the school.”
• Failing to act against staff who behaved inappropriately: Student after student detailed failures of school staff from security personnel who ordered students out of the building, to a principal who escorted students into a dangerous situation to a school nurse who didn’t want to call an ambulance. Student Dong Chen said: “We can identify those who ordered us to leave” but students weren’t asked about the failures of adults.
You can read more student perspectives here.
While the violence at South Philly made the headlines on Dec. 3, the real story has been in the appalling way the District has handled the situation since. Unfolding before us is how localized violence becomes institutionalized: the silence of the District around racial and ethnic hate, the retaliation against specific students, and the denial of student voices.
When the District remains silent about racism and racially motivated violence, then it is telling us to do the same by default. To move on. To bury the voices of the hurt, the fearful, the silenced, the victimized. The line between the message of “move on” and “get over it” to “get used to it” has become indiscernible.
3/19/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “District clears S. Phila. student of gang charge,”
by Jeff Gammage
City school district officials formally acknowledged yesterday that 17-year-old Hao Luu was not connected to a street gang – an allegation that was used to ban him from South Philadelphia High.
Evelyn Sample-Oates, the district’s vice president for communications, said a letter had been placed in Luu’s file to acknowledge his innocence and clear his name of the charge.
“If there’s any wrongdoing on the school district’s part,” she said, promising a full review, “we certainly will apologize to him and his family.”
The district, at the request of the School Reform Commission, will examine the actions and decisions that led to Luu’s suspension and ban from the school, which was convulsed by racial violence Dec. 3.
Luu’s grandmother Suong Nguyen testified tearfully before the commission Wednesday, insisting on her grandson’s innocence and pleading with officials to “reveal Hao’s case and help him clear from the wrongful accusations.”
Her words prompted Commissioner Johnny Irizarry to seek an explanation from the district staff, a request that Chairman Robert Archie obliged.
The case of Luu, an immigrant from Vietnam, has become a focal point for Asian activists critical of how the district has disciplined students accused of playing a role in the violence.
In an interview last night, Luu said he was thrilled to hear he’d been cleared of gang affiliation and relieved for his family. He had not received any official notification from school officials.
“Before, I was really worried, especially when I heard they were saying I was from a gang,” he said through a translator. “I was worried how it would affect if I could go to college or get a job. My family was so concerned that the school wasn’t treating me right. My grandmother, my mom, and my dad and especially me are so relieved and so happy.”
Luu’s grandmother said in a separate interview that she was “amazed and happy,” pleased that the commission had listened and acted.
Still, Nguyen said, she and her grandson deserve a letter of apology. Both can reclaim their dignity, and “my soul can be at peace,” she said.
“I can finally sleep well and not worry about my grandson,” Nguyen said through a translator. Her grandson will not return to South Philadelphia High, she said.
Luu was among the students suspended as a result of the violence that enveloped the school Dec. 3, when Asians faced a daylong series of assaults by groups of mostly African American classmates. A district inquiry blamed the violence on rumors that sprang from an after-school altercation between Asian and African American students the previous day.
Luu’s supporters say he was not involved in a fight Dec. 2 but was the victim of a beating.
During the school day, another student accosted him in a hall and yanked the earphones out of his ears. After school, he was followed by 10 to 15 students, attacked, and beaten so badly that he vomited.
During the next two months, his attorney and other advocates said, Luu was ordered transferred from the school despite having won his case at a disciplinary hearing. He was accused of being in a gang, an allegation his family strongly denied. At one point, officials accused him of taking part in a fight in 2008 – a time when he was living in Virginia.
Luu’s attorney, Cecilia Chen of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said she was gratified that the commission had quickly sought an accounting of what she called “the wrongdoing of district personnel.”
But Luu and his family still “are facing long-term consequences of the false accusations and reckless disciplinary action taken against him by the school and district,” Chen said.
Chen said those actions fit a pattern in which the district “has misrepresented what happened and who was responsible for the violence at South Philadelphia High School on Dec. 3.”
The Legal Defense Fund has filed a complaint with the Department of Justice accusing the district of being “indifferent” to the welfare and safety of Asian students.
Luu, banned from the high school and with his academic year slipping away, enrolled in a private religious school in mid-February.
“Chairman Archie asked the staff to do a full investigation into this, and find out exactly what happened,” Sample-Oates said. “We’re trying to do our due diligence and find out exactly what happened.”
That review will encompass all the suspended students but specifically Luu, as his case has evolved from Dec. 2 until now.
“We found no gang relation in his file. We’ve cleared his record on that,” she said.
Sample-Oates said any kind of disruption to Luu’s education had been because “we were trying to make sure there would be no harm to him or to the school climate in South Philadelphia. Any actions we’ve taken would be for his own safety.”
On Feb. 5, after the school failed in an effort to transfer Luu for disciplinary reasons, his attorney was told that Luu was part of a gang.
If Luu returned to school, he would suffer gang retaliation. The district, Chen was told, did not believe Luu would be safe at South Philadelphia High.
3/17/10 CityPaper.net: “The Fall Guy: The student the School District blamed for the violence at South Philadelphia High School shares his story. It’s not the same one District officials have been telling,”
by Isaiah Thompson
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the print edition of this story, City Paper protected the identity of the South Philadelphia High School student (“Guy”) at his request, and at the request of his grandmother, Suong Nguyen. However, on Wednesday, March 17, 2010 — after this article went to press — Nguyen chose to use her grandson’s name, Hao Luu, in her public testimony before the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.
By now, you’ve heard the story: On Thursday, Dec. 3, more than 20 Asian students were attacked on their way home from South Philadelphia High School (SPHS) by a mob of as many as 100 of their peers, most of them African-American. The incident — which is still under investigation by the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, and is the subject of a complaint Asian-American activists filed with the U.S. Department of Justice — dominated the daily papers’ front pages, and drew national, even international, media attention. It was, to be sure, an ugly affair that sent seven students to the hospital, and ultimately led to 19 suspensions and 14 transfers to alternative schools. Earlier that day, security guards had locked down an entire floor of the school to prevent a surge of primarily black students from threatening Asians; in another incident, Asian students were attacked en masse in the lunchroom. After the attacks, Asian students boycotted SPHS for seven days, saying they wouldn’t go back until the School District of Philadelphia could guarantee their safety.
For Asian-American community advocates, this racially charged violence represented just the tip of the iceberg, the culmination of years of hostility that Asian SPHS students had faced — a problem, they say, that school officials simply failed to acknowledge.
The School District was slow to respond to the attacks. It took Superintendent Arlene Ackerman six days to comment publicly. And when she did, she had a decidedly different interpretation: “What began as an unwarranted off-campus attack on a disabled African-American student,” she told the School Reform Commission on Dec. 9, “quickly escalated into a retaliatory multi-racial attack on primarily Chinese students.”
Her implication was clear: The black students were retaliating against an alleged attack that took place the previous day, Dec. 2, on a black student, presumably by an Asian. A month later, Ackerman suggested the fight was “gang-related,” and penned an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer to say that preventing school violence was “everyone’s problem.”
In painting the attacks this way, Ackerman’s critics say, the superintendent was glossing over a pattern of neglect and letting school officials off the hook by blaming an endemic, citywide “culture of violence.”
Three weeks ago, retired U.S. District Court Judge James T. Giles released a 37-page report — which had been commissioned by the District for $99,553 — that largely echoed Ackerman’s take on the situation: Whether the report of an assault on a disabled black student was true or not — the evidence is ambiguous at best — the rumors amplified the wave of violence, Giles told reporters in late February. While his report doesn’t mention any violence against Asian students before December 2009, it focuses heavily on the events that took place the day before the infamous Dec. 3 attack, and speculates further that those attacks may have stemmed from “street gang influences.” (UPDATE: The day after City Paper broke this story, the School District reversed its initial claim and stated for the record that Hau Luu — “Guy” — is not in a street gang.)
Ackerman greeted the report with satisfaction, saying it was time to “move forward, because we’ll never be able to really get a handle on what happened in the past” — a tidy conclusion to a messy situation.
Of course, it wasn’t that tidy, nor was it the conclusion. Ackerman may be ready to put this unpleasantness behind her, but neither Asian students nor community activists seem willing to follow suit. On March 14, the Inquirer published the accounts of six Asian students who say that Giles ignored key elements of their stories in compiling his report. (Giles insisted to the Inquirer that his report was balanced. He said he focused on Dec. 2 and Dec. 3 because that was all his budget allowed.)
Also, critics say, Ackerman and school officials relied on a thinly sourced narrative that dwelled on the supposed actions of a single Vietnamese student. That student, it turns out, was among those suspended from South Philly High. He was identified in the Giles report as a possible instigator of the Dec. 2 violence that supposedly led up to the Dec. 3 mêlée. Though never mentioned by name, this student, who speaks little English, became part of a convenient narrative for a District that wanted to paint these events as being less about the long-standing victimization of a targeted ethnic minority than the result of a feud gone haywire. After all, with the latter explanation, school officials couldn’t be blamed for ignoring the powder keg that was about to blow.
But that Vietnamese student has his own story to tell — and so far, it’s one that hasn’t been told, because neither Giles, the police nor any school official has ever bothered to ask him what happened. He denies being in a gang. He says that on Wed., Dec. 2, he was the victim, not the aggressor, in a beating that left him bruised and vomiting — and contrary to both Ackerman’s assertion and the school’s rumor mill, that incident had nothing to do with any disabled student. He says that he and his family shared his story with school officials not once, but twice, but they weren’t interested in what he had to say.
Instead, he was suspended and ultimately pushed out of SPHS. His Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) attorney, Cecilia Chen — who also represents, separately, other Asian SPHS students in the complaint filed with the Justice Department — says the District used the teenager’s alleged misdeeds to absolve itself of charges of “deliberate indifference” and “intentional disregard for the welfare of Asian students.”
This student recently spoke to a City Paper reporter, on the condition that his name be withheld. So, we’ll just call him “Guy” — as in, perhaps, the fall guy, for a school’s troubled reputation.
Just Lay Low
Guy came to the United States from Vietnam with his parents a year and a half ago. They were brought over by Guy’s grandmother, Suong Nguyen, 65, a member of the Vietnamese diaspora known as Viet Kieu — many of whom left North Vietnam as refugees after the fall of Saigon. Nguyen fled the country stowed in a boat piloted by her husband, and eventually made her way to Orlando, Fla., where she worked assembling electronic parts for eight years before relocating to Northern Virginia, where she spent another eight years working at Dulles International Airport, preparing airline meals.
Nguyen retired last year, the same year her husband passed away. Last fall, the reunited family moved to South Philadelphia, into a modest house near Broad Street. In September, Guy, a soft-spoken, lanky 17-year-old, began attending South Philadelphia High School, just a few blocks from his house. Guy liked the school. The teachers were good, the bilingual counselors and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instructors were helpful, and he made friends quickly, mostly among Vietnamese students who, like him, were immigrants and spoke limited English.
But there was one problem, Guy says: He and his friends got picked on, a lot — mostly by African-American students.
This isn’t a new problem. Since 2008, AALDEF has documented at least 28 incidents in which Asian-American students were attacked, threatened or harassed by other students at SPHS, including robberies, assaults, racial slurs and episodes ominously reminiscent of the Dec. 3 eruption.
“These kids would yell at us, but I’m not sure what they said,” Guy says through an interpreter provided by Boat People SOS, an organization that assists refugee families. “They would laugh really loud in front of us. When I walked by in the hallways, sometimes they’d put out their leg and try to trip me.”
It wasn’t just him and his friends: Many of the students of Asian descent, who constitute 18 percent of the school’s population, were targets. (That many of these attacks came at the hands of black students is likely the product of simple demography: 70 percent of the student body is black.) Guy says he and his friends tried to ignore the taunting and keep a low profile, a tactic that many immigrant students’ parents and school officials encouraged.
“They usually say to the kids, and I myself say to my grandson … just try to not find any trouble,” says Nguyen, also through the interpreter. “Ignore the teasing, your English isn’t good, if they say stuff to you, you don’t even know what they’re saying, so just lay low.”
And that’s what they did, Guy says. Most of the time, the bullying stopped at teasing. But not on Dec. 2, 2009.
December 2: The fuse
As Guy tells the story, that afternoon he was walking down a hallway on SPHS’s fourth floor with some friends, listening to music on his headphones, when the trouble started. A black male student plucked out his ear bud and said something to him. He couldn’t tell what, so he kept walking. By the time he reached the end of the hallway, the black student and his friends were following them. Guy and a friend, “V,” headed down the stairs to the second floor — pursued, they say, by a growing crowd of black students.
A school police officer intervened and separated the two groups. The officer handcuffed and detained both the black male who Guy says harassed him and another black student who, according to a police report, displayed “extra aggressive behavior.” Those two students were taken to the school’s police office. Guy and his friends went to class. They were never questioned.
Guy says that, on their own, he and V filed written statements about the incident with the school’s security office.
After school, things got worse. Guy and five friends were just leaving the campus, on Broad Street at Snyder Avenue, when they saw a group of more than 10 students, mostly black and both male and female, running across the street, directly toward them. Some of the kids, Guy says, were the same ones who had chased him earlier that day.
“They started taking off their backpacks, like they were getting ready to fight,” he says. “They surrounded us, and they started beating us.”
One of Guy’s friends managed to escape; Guy wasn’t so fortunate. When he made his break, he lost his shoe. As he reached down to grab it, he was punched in the head from behind. He says he swung his shoe blindly, connecting with someone, he thinks — though he’s not sure. He tried to flee again, only to be overtaken by another, smaller group of assailants. He was punched in the head again, and after he fell forward, he says, four males pummeled him with their fists. They did not stop until an employee of a nearby Walgreens chased the attackers away. Guy limped home with the help of his friends. Along the way, he threw up. By the time he got home, the side of his face was badly bruised.
His story is largely supported by testimony included in Giles’ report — but only as one possible version of what happened. In another iteration, which is also described in that report, Guy is alleged to have confronted the African-American student in the hallway and been among the Vietnamese aggressors who “jumped” a “crippled/disabled African-American student.” He is also alleged to have been part of a street gang.
Ackerman picked up the latter version and ran with it, and the idea of the Vietnamese instigators who beat up a disabled black student the day before the Dec. 3 chaos became the de facto official story. (She and other school officials declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Calling the evidence that supports this theory of the events of Dec. 2 “flimsy” would be generous. The notion of Guy-as-instigator, according to Giles’ report, is largely based on a single incident report filed that day by school police officers. Although Giles’ report says that both the black and Asian students involved in that incident were interviewed, the officers’ incident report contains only interviews with the two African-American males who were detained that afternoon. Guy says the school police never spoke to him or his friends.
According to that incident report, one of the black students told school police that Guy had “bumped” him, and said “something smart.” It describes the incident as a “fight,” although Giles’ report says the police officers saw no punches thrown. The contradictory version Guy and V gave in statements to the school security office that day are not included in this document. In his report, Giles says, “None of the Asian students reported any fear or concern for their safety,” even though they say they did.
The basis for these accounts, according to Giles’ report, are “hearsay statements,” none of which were taken from the students involved. Giles never interviewed any of the school’s African-American students, nor did he speak with Guy or the other Asian students who claimed they were attacked the afternoon of Dec. 2.
“I did not do an interview of students,” Giles tells City Paper, citing concerns over students’ due process in disciplinary hearings. “I looked at incident reports.”
A valuable statistic
On the morning of Dec. 3, with the help of a bilingual translator, Guy’s grandmother filed a report to SPHS on the attack on her grandson. “Just tell your grandson not to cause any trouble with those kids,” Nguyen says the counselor told her. “I said, ‘My grandson hadn’t caused any trouble, he had been attacked.'”
Nguyen wanted action taken: inquiries, discipline, something. But neither she nor Guy nor — as far as they know — any of his friends who witnessed the attack were ever contacted by school officials. The school did take one action, though: On Dec. 3, Guy was suspended for 10 days for “disrupting school” — though neither Guy nor his grandmother would know of the suspension for another two weeks.
The next day, the school’s Asian students did something completely unprecedented: They boycotted the school and refused to return until school officials could guarantee their safety. Guy, still unaware of his suspension, joined them.”We all felt that we were victims, and we were in it together,” he says. “I thought that I was like all the other kids, and that I was going back to school.”
That same day, Dec. 4, the day the violence grabbed headlines, District Regional Superintendent Michael Silverman announced that 10 students, four of whom were Asian — including Guy, who stayed home from school Dec. 3 — had been suspended. That detail lent credence to the narrative of a two-way racial feud, rather than the victimization of one race of students by another.
It was only after the boycott ended on Dec. 16, when Guy tried to return to class and a school official told him to leave, that he learned of his punishment. And it was only that day, after he returned home, that Guy and his family found a suspension notice in the mail. (The notice was dated Dec. 3, but was postmarked Dec. 16.) That notice informed Guy that he could argue his innocence at a Dec. 9 hearing, which, obviously, he’d already missed.
Documents obtained by City Paper suggest that Guy’s suspension resulted from the police incident report — which, again, was based solely on the statements of the two black males who had the run-in with Guy on Dec. 2.
Guy and his family were upset. But, it was only a 10-day suspension, and Guy returned to school two days later prepared to resume his studies. That evening, however, his family discovered another piece of mail, a notice for a “disciplinary transfer hearing.”
The School District wanted to expel Guy from SPHS.
Even as Guy’s transfer hearing was pending, school officials again emphasized publicly that Asian, as well as black, students were being punished for the Dec. 3 violence. For anyone hoping to smooth the ugly racial edge to the attacks, Guy had become a valuable statistic.
“They were looking for a scapegoat,” says Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, an advocacy group. “And they were willing to go to any length, including potentially ruining this young man’s life, to do it.”
Guy appealed his transfer, and when District officials failed to show at the hearing, the transfer was overturned. But the District, it seems, was adamant: On Feb. 2, Regional Superintendent Silverman authorized and SPHS principal LeGreta Brown signed a “transfer request,” which meant that Guy would be booted from SPHS and into an alternative school without ever getting the chance to confront his accuser.
“There was no opportunity [for the Asian students who were disciplined] to tell their side of the story before they were disciplined,” says Cecilia Chen, Guy’s attorney. “There was no effort on the part of the school to investigate what happened.”
At one point during this process, Chen says, a School District attorney told her that Guy would, in fact, be allowed back. But the next day, the attorney called Chen again and said the District had received word that Guy was a “gang member,” and that he would not be safe at SPHS. That implication outraged his family: “[Guy] was beaten by students after school. Then he was suspended, and then he was told he could not go to the school anymore. And now I am told you believe he is in a gang,” his grandmother wrote in a Feb. 5 letter to District officials. “If you say that he is in a gang, where’s your proof? … You have not spoken to my grandson. … I cannot believe that a school in this country would treat my family this way.”
In a March 12 statement, the School District tells City Paper that Guy is, in fact, welcome at South Philadelphia High School: “The school delayed his return due to the need to fully investigate information the school received from a community partner regarding the safety of the student and the overall climate of the school. This student is now permitted to return; however, the student decided not to return to District-managed school.”
Indeed, on Feb. 4, the District rescinded Guy’s transfer. But by then, his family had had enough: They enrolled him in a private Christian school.
The District, meanwhile, maintains that its disciplinary process was fair: “The school and the District followed the required procedures throughout the disciplinary process. The District’s investigative and appeal processes provided students and their families with the opportunity to question the disciplinary actions taken by the school.”
Of course, that’s of little consolation to Guy, who — if you believe his version of events — was taunted and beaten by fellow classmates, had his pleas for help ignored, was punished by the very school officials who were supposed to protect him, and, his lawyers say, was used as a pawn in the District’s PR battle.
The District may say he can come back to SPHS, but, it seems, he feels less than welcome.
4/12/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “‘I will fight,’ says girl, but denies report The “Cambodian female” was accused of instigating the S. Phila. High assault,”
by Jeff Gammage and Kristen A. Graham
For six weeks, since the release of the official Philadelphia School District report on the Dec. 3 violence, she has been the mystery girl of South Philadelphia High:
The rogue student identified only as “the Cambodian female,” singled out as an instigator and assailant who joined predominantly African American youths in a series of assaults on Asians.
At 1:30 p.m. that day, the report said, two to four African American girls accompanied by a “possibly Cambodian” female attacked an Asian girl, then dragged her downstairs by her hair.
In a massive after-school assault on Broad Street two hours later, the Cambodian girl was “the first to attack” and “the most violent,” identified by the principal as kicking a Vietnamese girl, the report said.
Who is she? Few know.
School District security chief James Golden said he didn’t know who she was. Philadelphia police investigators said they didn’t know her. The local Cambodian association has been unable to contact her.
After weeks of searching, however, The Inquirer has identified and interviewed the girl, who is 15. She denied any role in the violence of Dec. 3.
“I didn’t do nothing wrong,” she insisted. “Why, of all the people that’s involved, they pick me out?”
She acknowledged being in a brawl the previous day. And she said no one should doubt her toughness when provoked. “I will fight.”
The newspaper is withholding her name because of her age.
The district report, issued Feb. 23, cited the girl 10 times in its findings and twice in footnotes.
Cambodian leaders and Asian advocates question why a lone Cambodian girl is cited again and again among so large a group of assailants – at least 10 to 20 inside the school and 20 to 40 outside, according to the report.
They say it’s a district attempt to portray the events of Dec. 3 not as “anti-Asian violence” specific to South Philadelphia High, but as general violence that could have happened anywhere.
“We won’t make excuses for her, but I want to know how she’s tied to the whole thing,” said Rorng Sorn, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia. “Why is this Cambodian female student being highlighted multiple times?”
Sorn questioned whether the girl had been mentioned so “she can be the scapegoat, and it can be, ‘OK, the attackers also had Asians. Maybe it’s not racially motivated.’ ”
Cecilia Chen, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, agreed.
“The district has made a very strong effort to portray the attacks as multiracial, and the fact that they focus so heavily on a single Cambodian female really speaks to that,” she said. “It was only Asian immigrant students who were attacked on Dec. 3.”
District officials vigorously denied there was any attempt to use the Cambodian girl as a means to broaden the races of those involved.
“That is absolutely not true,” spokeswoman Evelyn Sample-Oates said. Asian and African American students were identified and suspended, she said.
James T. Giles, a retired federal judge, conducted the district inquiry at the request of School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. The report named no students.
In an interview, Giles said his description of the Cambodian girl’s actions had been based solely on the facts. She was deemed the “most violent” on Broad, where about 100 mostly African American youths surrounded 10 Vietnamese students, because she had been seen kicking a girl, he said.
“I can assure you there was no anti-Asian intention in the report I wrote,” Giles said. “But people think what they want. There’s nothing I can say to dissuade them from the views they have, nor would I attempt to.”
The girl’s involvement in the after-school attack “counters a proposition that all the attackers on Broad Street were black,” he said. “If it’s true the composition of the group was other than all black, then, as I said in the report, it requires looking at more complicated sociological issues than just black versus Asian.”
The girl is a ninth grader who now attends a disciplinary school. She stands 5-foot-2 and weighs 98 pounds, all legs and long brown hair, and during the interview she wore stylish silver sandals, cutoff blue jeans, and a gray T-shirt. Her fingernails were manicured, the tips painted white.
Standing on the sidewalk near her South Philadelphia home, she slurped a cherry Popsicle. She had no idea the district existed. She said she had a long disciplinary record and had belonged to a street gang. But she said that on Dec. 3, she deliberately walked past the melee on Broad and was later shocked to be told by community liaison Wali Smith that she was being suspended.
“That’s crazy,” she said. “Mr. Wali Smith said, ‘I saw you kick the Asian girl in the face. You ran across the street and kicked her in the face.’ I said, ‘No.’ . . . Who’s going to listen to a student? A teacher always wins.”
Sample-Oates, the district spokeswoman, said Smith was not the only staffer to identify the girl. One of the victims and other eyewitnesses recognized her, she said.
The girl’s mother, who speaks limited English, broke into tears at the mention of her daughter’s name. She said the teen, the third-youngest of nine children, was impossible to control.
“I called the police on her last night,” she said, sitting on the front steps of her rowhouse. “When I talk to her, she screams at me.”
The girl’s brother-in-law, Christopher Robinson, defended her as less culpable than others involved in the violence. It’s true her gang pummeled new members as an initiation rite, but none carried guns or sold drugs, he said.
“I’m not saying she’s an angel,” Robinson said, adding that her past made her easy to blame.
The girl nodded.
“My record is real bad. I understand,” she said.
Robinson said his sister-in-law, like some Cambodians born and raised here, identified with African American culture and sided with black students in disputes with Asian immigrants.
The district report said gang influences could not be excluded as a cause of some of the violence. Giles told The Inquirer that he had not researched the Cambodian girl’s associations, and that his supposition of gang involvement had been based on other information.
Since the report’s release, trying to determine the identity of the Cambodian girl has been the buzz among teachers at South Philadelphia High. After Dec. 3, she was suspended and transferred to Transitions South, an alternative school.
The Cambodian girl criticized the school disciplinary process as unjust. Two other Asian students who were punished also have said they were disciplined unfairly. In one case, the district retracted its allegation that one of the two, Hao Luu, was part of a gang.
In the interview, the Cambodian girl said her mother had attended her disciplinary hearing. But neither of them went to the second, formal hearing because the district notification did not arrive until it was over, the girl said.
Sample-Oates said the district had not been told the notice arrived late. The girl never contacted school or district officials to question her new school assignment, she said.
The Dec. 3 violence has spawned three investigations, including by the state Human Relations Commission and the U.S. Justice Department.
Giles’ inquiry blamed the Dec. 3 violence on rumors that circulated after a confrontation between Asian and African American youths the previous day. Asian students dispute that, saying assaults against them have gone on unchecked for years.
They and their advocates say the key point is not the race of the attackers, even if one was Cambodian, but the fact that all the victims were Asian.
The Cambodian girl is first mentioned five pages into the 37-page report. Her role apparently started Dec. 2, the report said.
At 1:30 p.m. that day, a group of Asian and African American students had a verbal confrontation on the second floor of the school and were separated by school police. Afterward, at least two rumors emerged about the cause of the confrontation. One was that during third period “a Cambodian female had ‘challenged’ a group of three Vietnamese students to a fight.”
At 3:15 p.m. that day, an after-school altercation occurred between African American and Asian students, including some who had been involved in the second-floor incident.
One of the victims to come forward publicly was Luu, a 17-year-old immigrant from Vietnam. He was beaten so badly that he vomited.
The report said one rumored assailant in that incident, which ended at a Walgreens store, was the Cambodian girl. The rumor was that “the arms of one of the Vietnamese students were held by African American females while the Cambodian female struck him in the head, rendering him unconscious.”
The Cambodian girl told The Inquirer she had been involved in that fight, but only to aid a friend. An Asian boy “hit me with a shoe. I hit him back.”
The first attack of Dec. 3 occurred at 8:45 a.m., when a group of mostly African American students assaulted an Asian student in Room 424, the report said.
At 10:30 a.m., eight Vietnamese youths went to school police and identified four African American assailants from the Walgreens incident.
“Apparently,” the report said, “someone also identified a Cambodian female student as an assailant, as her name appears in the school police incident report.”
The violence continued through the day.
The biggest attack occurred on Broad at dismissal, when the Vietnamese students were chased, surrounded, and beaten.
“A Cambodian female recognized by staff at the scene as an SPHS student was the first to attack the students,” the report said, “and was reported to have been the most violent.”
The victims could not identify their attackers, but “most of them did recognize the role that the Cambodian female played in initiating and participating in the attack,” the report said. “The principal and other SPHS staff were close enough to the attack that they were able to clearly identify the Cambodian female.”
The girl said the district had warned her that city police would charge her, but that never happened.
“We never had a court date or nothing,” she said.
4/19/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Can Philadelphia learn from Lafayette High?”
By Liz Willen
New York – History teacher Patrick Compton is leafing through pages of the 1967 yearbook of Lafayette High School, alma mater of baseball great Sandy Koufax and broadcaster Larry King in a working-class enclave of Brooklyn.
Only 11 of the faces are black or Asian. Picking up Lafayette’s 2007 yearbook, Compton finds that Jewish and Italian names are nearly gone, replaced by faces of African Americans and immigrants from South Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America.
The ethnic sea change brought with it a spate of violence against Asian students by non-Asian classmates remarkably similar to the unrest and painful divisions plaguing South Philadelphia High.
“As neighborhoods change, schools have to change, and unless they address the needs of a new population systemically, the problems are just going to be reflected back into the schools and repeat themselves,” says Compton, a resident of Burlington Township, who has spent 24 years teaching in the cavernous brick building in Bensonhurst, a densely populated area of semidetached two-family homes 16 miles from Midtown Manhattan.
Compton, who has been following events at South Philadelphia High, worries that lessons from Lafayette will be lost. “You can’t just address this school by school.”
Like Bensonhurst, the neighborhood surrounding South Philadelphia High has experienced radical population shifts in recent years, absorbing a steady influx of immigrants from China and Vietnam, and it is now 70 percent African American and 18 percent Asian.
As investigations into violence against Asian immigrants at South Philadelphia High continue, the school may find some disturbing parallels with Lafayette, which earned the nickname “Horror High” after about two dozen assaults in 2002, including the beating of valedictorian Siukwo Cheng.
The Justice Department investigated, leading a federal court in Brooklyn two years later to find “severe and pervasive” harassment of Asian students at Lafayette.
School officials looked the other way while students threw food, cans, and even metal locks at Asian students, the court found, and it ordered Lafayette to address each case of violence and discrimination and investigate all reports of harassment. The school was also ordered to improve services for English-language learners and provide translation into Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian, Creole, and Urdu.
The court order brought small improvements over the next two years, but violence continued. High turnover in leadership and a plummeting graduation rate finally led the New York City Department of Education to phase Lafayette out. In June, the neighborhood landmark, which had teemed with as many as 4,500 students in the days when the Brooklyn Dodgers called Ebbets Field home and kids played stickball in the streets, will graduate its last class.
Lafayette’s painful demise poses questions for South Philadelphia High about what might heal divisions there.
“You can’t just address these issues with security guards or cops in schools,” says Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. “They need to create a sense of inclusion, so all kids feel like part of the community.”
That was not the case at South Philadelphia High, where 13 Asian students were sent to a hospital after violence Dec. 3 that triggered a seven-day student boycott. In interviews, Asian students said they did not feel safe, and a report released in February by a retired federal judge found “race and ethnicity” were contributing factors.
Cecilia Chen, a staff lawyer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), finds “striking similarities” between the violence at Lafayette, where the group closely monitored the 2004 court order, and South Philadelphia High. Chen hopes the Justice Department’s investigation of South Philadelphia High will result in court action as it did at Lafayette.
In January, the AALDEF filed a civil-rights complaint alleging “deliberate indifference” to harassment complaints against Asian students.
Lafayette and South Philadelphia High “ignored signs that violence against Asian students was increasing and, despite repeated calls and pressure from community groups, refused to acknowledge that there was a problem,” Chen told the Philadelphia School Reform Commission in December.
If the school wants to improve relations among ethnic groups, it must start by listening to students, which did not initially happen at Lafayette, says Steve Chung, copresident of the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn.
New immigrant students also need to learn how to defend themselves and recognize harassment, says Vincci Tai, who graduated from Lafayette in 2009; by that time the school was 43 percent African American, 23 percent Asian, and 24 percent Latino. Tai, a college freshman, says Asian immigrants “were afraid to fight back and afraid of getting into trouble.”
Tai recently spoke to students at South Philadelphia. “I told them it’s important to speak out and raise awareness,” she says, “so this doesn’t happen again.”
At both schools, students and community leaders complained that the principal would not listen. At South Philadelphia in the fall, LaGreta Brown became the school’s fourth principal in five years. She has declined to discuss the December violence or the report’s findings, but defended her efforts to provide safety and order.
At Lafayette, the students – who received training and guidance from AALDEF, federal officials, and community groups – ultimately did the most to improve race relations, says Richard Mangone, a social-studies teacher and union representative.
“We had a strong group of youth,” he says. “They organized, they asked for change, and they were clear in what they wanted from the adults.”
Lafayette students gained confidence after the 2005 appointment of Iris Chiu as the school’s first Asian administrator, Mangone recalls. Chiu spent her early months listening to students’ concerns and urging different groups to learn more about one another, including their tastes in food, dance, and music.
But a year after the court intervened, change remained elusive at Lafayette. Students continued to complain of harassment during the 2004-05 school year. A freshman was beaten after school while waiting for a train; another student was choked by a classmate in the locker room. In other cases, students did not report incidents because they had no confidence in the school’s ability to respond or to interview witnesses, says Khin Mai Aung, a staff lawyer at AALDEF.
Problems at Lafayette went deeper than violence. Asian immigrants complained they were not placed in classes for English-language learners and did not have access to guidance counselors. They had trouble enrolling in the courses required for graduation and could not get translation or interpretation services as required by law.
Connie Cuttle, director of professional development for the Office of School and Youth Development in New York City schools, says complaints went up after the 2004 court order in part because of better security and reporting of incidents.
Cuttle says the most important lesson learned at Lafayette is the need for social and emotional learning, which improves academics. But those lessons came too late for Lafayette, which is being replaced with small, themed academies.
Assistant principal Chiu savors small victories, including the progress of an immigrant student who stayed and won a full scholarship to Columbia University. Asian students at the time were afraid of African American students because they had no understanding of their culture, she recalls. And African American kids mimicked Asian students, making fun of the way they spoke, until they got to know them better.
A breakthrough came during one of many late nights at the school, amid preparations for a multicultural celebration in 2006.
“A security guard turned to me and said, ‘I have been working in this building for more than 20 years, and this is the first time I have ever seen black and Asian students working together,’ ” Chiu recalls.
On the night of the celebration, 300 watched as Chinese New Year’s celebrations and tai-chi sword demonstrations mingled with African dance, rap, and hip-hop. Lafayette alumnus and recent college graduate Siukwo Cheng, the valedictorian who had been beaten unconscious in 2002, sat in the audience.
Cheng “turned to me and said there had never been this type of cultural show when he was there,” recalls Aung, the lawyer.
Aung wants students in South Philadelphia to stop seeing themselves as victims. “There are already student organizers who are active, but they can be trained to document incidents and really hold the district accountable for their actions.”
At Lafayette, few ethnic tensions remain – because the school is almost empty. Compton and Mangone sometimes teach just two or three students a day. Compton wonders whether any lessons from Lafayette might help, not just at South Philadelphia High, but everywhere. “How is Philadelphia defending the rights of every student in their system?” he wonders. “That’s what matters.”
4/26/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Pain for Asian youth didn’t end with school assault,”
by Jeff Gammage
On March 16, ninth grader Lindi Liu was exiting a bathroom stall at South Philadelphia High when another boy kicked the door inward, bashing him in the head.
As Liu picked himself up off the floor, he could hear the boy laughing.
The incident lasted only seconds, but for Liu, a 16-year-old immigrant from China, the consequences have been profound.
His vision frequently turns blurry, to where he can’t count fingers held in front of his face. He forgets conversations that occurred moments earlier, and sometimes struggles to identify everyday objects, like the chicken on his dinner plate. He gets sudden nose bleeds.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the school inquiry showed Liu was injured carelessly but unintentionally. The boy was kicking the doors of the stalls in turn, and did not realize Liu was there, he said.
“It seems it was not intended as an assault or intended to injure anyone,” he said.
However, a student who was in the bathroom at the time contradicted that.
Dong Chen, 19, said the assailant kicked only one of five doors, the one with a broken lock, behind which stood Liu. Chen said when the door hit Liu’s head, “we could hear it, it was so loud. Pow!”
Liu’s parents are frightened for their son’s health.
“I’m so upset,” Liu’s mother, Hui Qin Chen, said through a translator as she wiped tears from her eyes. “I don’t know what to do.”
On Dec. 3, South Philadelphia High generated national headlines when Asian students suffered a daylong series of assaults carried out by groups of mostly African American classmates. About 50 students staged a weeklong boycott.
School district administrators suspended 19 students, installed more security cameras, and added school police. The district report on the violence, issued Feb. 23, noted that following that response, “there has been no repeat of the Dec. 3 activities.”
But Liu’s case illustrates that violence continues against Asian students.
“Very little has changed in how the school handles immigrant students’ concerns, and how they handle incidents of anti-Asian violence and harassment,” said Cecilia Chen, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed a federal complaint against the district.
The district inquiry blamed the Dec. 3 violence on rumors that followed an altercation between Asian and African American students the previous day. But Asians say that they have been abused for years – and that administrators ignored their complaints.
Community advocates say they know of at least seven post-Dec. 3 incidents against Asians, including three assaults.
School district records differ: Since Dec. 3, only one serious incident that occurred in or around the school involved an Asian victim – Liu.
The Inquirer reviewed school reports, medical records, and a police letter that outlined Liu’s case. Since being injured, Liu said, he has struggled to perform simple mental tasks, like counting the money in his wallet.
“My eyes are having problems,” he said. “They get very unclear.”
“He’ll say, ‘Mom, I can’t see right now,’ ” his mother said. “He forgets things. . . . When I ask him to do something, he’ll walk over there and ask me, ‘What did you want me to do?’ ”
Liu was examined at Chinatown Medical Services on March 25, where the doctor wrote he had blurred vision and should be seen at a hospital. The next day, Liu underwent a CT scan of the head. A week later, a sudden loss of vision sent him to the emergency room for a second CT scan. More tests are pending.
Liu worries that his condition is permanent – and that he could be hurt even worse at school. “I have this great fear that someone will attack me again,” he said.
Philadelphia police identified Liu’s assailant, a 16-year-old student. They advised Liu’s parents to pursue a complaint process aimed at mediation, common in simple-assault cases.
Liu and his older brother arrived at South Philadelphia High around Dec. 7. Liu said he received no orientation or guidebook, and no adult mentioned the violence of the previous week.
The absence of a translated guide to explain school-safety procedures to new students was among the complaints filed with the Justice Department on Jan. 19.
Asians make up 18 percent of the students at the school, which is 70 percent African American, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent white.
Liu’s father had left Fuzhou, China, for the United States, to work and save money so his wife and sons could follow. The family spent about 13 years apart, typical among Chinese immigrant students. Today the parents run a small Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia.
The witness, ninth grader Dong Chen, said that on March 16, he, Liu, and a third Chinese friend went to the five-stall bathroom. The youths took the middle three stalls, with Liu in the center, he said.
Two African American students entered. There was no kick to the first door, which was unlocked, Chen said, and no kick to the third door, his stall, which was locked.
“They only kicked the middle door,” he said.
When he heard the crash, Chen said, he rushed out and saw the youths, who “burst out laughing,” he said.
Chen said one boy laughingly shook his leg as if to indicate, “That really hurt.”
Liu said that when he fell, he injured his foot and elbow. He left the bathroom, borrowed a cell phone, and dialed his mother, who recalled him saying, “Mom, I’m attacked.” She asked if he had hit anyone. “No,” Liu responded. “I was in the bathroom, and they kicked the door at me, and I hit my head and now I’m bleeding.”
Chen said she and her husband hurried to the school, but were turned away by a security officer. No one fetched a translator.
Liu, unsure what to do, returned to class. When he got home he had a headache, and that night he suffered one of what have become recurring nosebleeds.
The next day, after a call from a bilingual counselor, Liu’s mother went to the school about 1:30, but was again refused admittance, she said.
Inside the building, Liu reported the incident to school authorities. The school police contacted the Philadelphia police.
That day or the next – the timing is disputed – the parents received a second call from the school, this time from a staffer who spoke only English, the family said. Liu’s parents had a coworker translate. They understood they were being asked to return to the school again, to meet with administrators.
That’s when Liu’s brother contacted Xu Lin, an organizer with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. Lin agreed to go to the school with the family the next day.
Gallard, the spokesman, said the district reviewed videotapes of people who entered the front door of the school on the days in question, and Liu’s mother did not appear on them. The school also interviewed security staff and found no evidence a visitor was kept out, he said.
The tapes capture the interior of the main entrance, he said. The district did not review video of other exterior doors. The mother could have attempted to enter through a different door, he said.
“We cannot explain how Liu’s mom would be turned away,” Gallard said. “We found that complaint to be worrisome. We just do not turn parents away. . . . We want to know if the parent can tell us exactly who they spoke to.”
On March 19, Liu, his mother, and Lin met with administrators. They said they were told Liu’s assailant would be suspended and transferred to another school.
Gallard said the family may have misunderstood. At that time, the inquiry was ongoing, and no administrator could have known the result. The school had begun disciplinary proceedings against the student, which terminated when he transferred out of the district on March 22, Gallard said.
On March 26, city Police Detective Danielle Tolliver wrote to Liu’s parents, advising them that if they wished to proceed, they should file a private criminal complaint. Her letter identified the “offender,” whose name is being withheld by The Inquirer because of his age.
In Philadelphia, cases of simple assault – involving no obvious, serious injury – typically are referred for private complaints, law enforcement officials said.
Tolliver’s letter advised the parents to contact Philadelphia Family Court. If that office accepted their complaint, it would schedule a mediation hearing. If mediation failed, the letter said, the case might be referred to the District Attorney’s Office, which would decide whether to proceed with a prosecution.
The detective’s letter was written in English, which Liu’s family could not understand. Once the letter was translated, Liu’s mother was disappointed, not seeing how mediation could be useful.
Police say the complaint process can help victims. In some cases, offering records that show internal injuries can result in more-serious charges being lodged.
“I would advise anybody that’s a victim of criminal simple assault to follow up, in this case with the juvenile process, with a private criminal complaint,” said Capt. Larry Nodiff, commander of South Detective Division.
Liu’s mother said her priority is her son’s health. An advocate agency, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, is helping the family file papers with the crime-victims compensation fund to pay medical bills.
“As parents we’re very, very concerned Lindi is about to lose his vision,” Chen said, wiping her eyes. “The doctor says there’s no damage outside, but there’s probably damage inside. . . . I just want my son to be well.”
3/18/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: ” Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman ignores African Americans assaulting Asian Americans; now wants reverse discrimination against Asian Americans,” [politically correct headline: Top city schools’ criteria in flux? Admissions rules should widen geographic and income diversity, a draft report says,”
By Susan Snyder
Concerned that its top academic schools are not racially and economically diverse enough, Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is proposing major changes in how students are admitted to them.
The plan would take admissions decisions away from principals and their committees, and select students for magnet and citywide-admissions schools centrally, using a computerized system, according to a “draft” obtained by The Inquirer.
District officials suggested a 1,000-point system, 600 points of which would be based on test scores and grades, according to the draft that was distributed to high school principals. Other factors would include behavior and attendance, and, for the first time, 200 points for “diversity” as measured by a student’s neighborhood or zip code and income level.
The proposal could upend a decades-old selection system for the magnet schools, long an educational refuge for the city’s middle class where many powerful and influential leaders send their children.
The district canceled a meeting scheduled for tonight to roll out the proposed changes to parents, following concerns from some principals and parents.
Warning that such moves could drive more middle-class families out of the city, some parents and school leaders said they feared that standards would be watered down and that nuances in applications would be missed by a computerized system.
“This admission policy threatens the very existence of special-admission schools,” said Amy Ashbridge, a parent on the Home and School Council at Masterman, the district’s top-performing school, where admission is very selective. “If our children were not in these special-selection schools, we would be taking ourselves and our tax dollars out of the city. You have to provide a way for middle-class people to be able to live in the city and not have to pay $25,000 a year in tuition.”
John Frangipani, chief of school operations, said that a plan would be rolled out in the coming weeks or months and that the draft document was just a proposal for discussion.
“These were just ideas we were floating, and we got some feedback,” he said.
District officials, he said, want all neighborhoods and zip codes – from the richest to the poorest – to be fairly represented in magnet schools such as Masterman and Central, where student test scores are among the highest in the state.
“We’re concerned about making sure students have all the opportunities afforded to them,” Frangipani said.
District officials said they could not provide current economic and racial profiles for magnets overall.
But individual school profiles on the district’s Web site – as well as a report by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based think tank – show that white, Asian, and female students, and those from more affluent families, are overrepresented at magnets as compared with the overall district population.
At Masterman last school year, 28 percent of students were black, compared with 60 percent districtwide. Whites made up 44 percent of students, compared with 13 percent districtwide.
Districtwide, 76 percent come from low-income families, while at Masterman the number is 44 percent. Other magnets also show differences, but not as large.
At the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, 49 percent of students are black, 34.5 percent white, and 48 percent from low-income families.
Officials at Research for Action say the district should look at modifications to its high-school admission system. Students from high-poverty areas with more learning needs tend to be concentrated in certain schools, said Eva Gold, founder and senior research fellow.
“While some students whose parents or other relations know how to navigate the system can obtain adequate information to make informed choices – and even ‘game’ the system – the lack of information from the district shortchanges more disadvantaged students,” Gold wrote in a policy brief issued in January. “Often there are ‘late’ admissions to selective schools when parents or influential advocates pressure for admittance.”
Currently, the district’s 19 “special-admission” high schools set their admission standards, covering test scores, grades, attendance, behavior, and other factors. Teams of principals select.
At the 12 “citywide-admission” schools, students enter a lottery if they meet standards.
For years, the district’s academic magnet system has attracted the offspring of the city’s powerbrokers.
Mayor Nutter’s daughter, Olivia, attends Masterman. Others who have or have had children there include former Philadelphia School Board President Pedro Ramos; former Mayor John F. Street, and Fire Commissioner Lloyd M. Ayers.
Under the draft proposal, admission criteria would include sixth- and seventh-grade marks in major subjects and standardized-test scores. Auditions also would count or replace test scores at “performance” schools, such as Creative and Performing Arts.
Under the 1,000-point system, student scores would be entered into a computerized selection system. Schools would have a minimum point requirement.
It also proposes to allot 70 percent of seats by geographic area or zip code and the other 30 percent to children from charter and parochial schools and for students new to the city.
The system is similar to one in Chicago, Frangipani said. District officials looked at systems in other cities, including San Francisco, where Ackerman made changes to magnet admissions as superintendent.
Michael Horwits, a social science teacher at Central, said the current system, in which a school committee pores over applications and selects, works. The committee looks at grades, test scores, recommendations, and other details.
“When you have a team like Central that goes to the Super Bowl every year, why mess with it?” asked Horwits, referring to the school’s top test scores.
He also asserted that Central is one of the most diverse schools: 32 percent black, 29 percent Asian, 30 percent white, and 7 percent Latino. Nearly 48 percent are low-income.
Central principal Sheldon Pavel declined to comment on the proposal, but said “we’ve been satisfied” with the current process.
At Science Leadership Academy, parents are circulating e-mails, encouraging opposition. William W. Felinski, an Edison High science teacher whose son is at the academy, objected to letting zip code be an admissions criterion, saying, “People who are qualified from any zip code in the city are invited to compete to get into that school.”
He said he likes that the Science Academy interviews applicants to find those who share the school’s goals and interests.
His son, William IV, agreed. “A student has to be qualified or have a passion for being in that learning environment in order for the school to succeed,” he said.
Ashbridge, whose 11th-grade twins attend Masterman, asked how a centralized system would measure the rigor of a student’s prior curriculum. Many students admitted to the high school had gotten an advanced curriculum at Masterman’s middle school.
The district, she said, should increase spots at top-notch schools rather than “dumb down the good schools we have.”
Emily Ashbridge, 17, a junior, said she worried a change in standards would hurt the quality of the student body and harm the strong attitude toward high achievement.
“At school, everyone wants to learn and getting bad grades isn’t cool,” she said.
Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth – long worried about equity – said the district’s goal was good, but success would depend on implementation.
“At first blush, it certainly is of concern that some schools don’t have enough diversity,” she said. “On the other hand, one wonders if a major centralized system will really help.”
3/26/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Commentary: Reaction to violence muted by stereotypes; Racism all around distorts South Phila. school strife,”
by Jonathan Zimmerman
If you live in the Delaware Valley, you’ve surely heard about the brutal December attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School. Seven kids were hospitalized with injuries sustained mostly at the hands of African American students, who beat Asians in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, and the streets outside the school.
But the incident has barely registered outside the area. To understand why, try a small thought experiment: Imagine if the victims were black and the attackers were white.
The whole nation – indeed, the whole world – would know. The president would denounce the episode on television and demand a speedy remedy. Members of Congress would eagerly join in, competing with each other to condemn the racism in our midst. And hordes of reporters would descend on the school.
But, hey, they’re only Asian kids getting beaten. And the attackers are black; we don’t expect a whole lot from them anyway.
There’s plenty of racism to go around here, and it’s not just at South Philadelphia High. It’s all around us, in the bigoted double standards we use to judge events like this.
Sadly, the behavior of African American students involved in the melee fits neatly into media-fed stereotypes of black hoodlums, drug dealers, and gangbangers. We see these images wherever we look, from movies and TV dramas to advertisements and music videos. So if we see it in real life, we shrug; it’s what “they” do.
Most don’t, of course. Yet when we refrain from criticizing black troublemakers as loudly as we do miscreants of other races, we reinforce the idea that African Americans are somehow prone to such acts. What could be more racist than that?
Ditto for our tepid reaction to the injuries inflicted on Asian kids. If they had been black, and the attackers white, we would have witnessed a national outpouring of concern for the victims. For centuries, African Americans have endured violence and vitriol at the hands of white people, we’d say. And now this.
News flash: Asians have suffered their share of hatred in America, too. We don’t know or talk about it as much. But it’s true, and pretending otherwise shows another stark racial inconsistency.
In the West especially, Asian immigrants encountered rabid prejudice and brutality. White mobs in Los Angeles hanged, shot, and burned 21 Chinese residents in 1871. Nine years later, another mob destroyed most of Denver’s Chinatown. In Wyoming, whites killed 28 Chinese railroad workers; in Oregon, they murdered and mutilated the bodies of 31 Chinese miners.
Congress responded with a series of measures to keep Asians off our shores. In 1882, it prohibited Chinese workers from immigrating; a 1907 agreement with Japan effectively barred laborers from that country, too.
The states instituted their own discrimination. In California, a 1913 law prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land. “All about us the Asiatics are gaining a foothold,” warned one supporter of the measure. “It is a germ of the mightiest problem that ever faced this state, a problem that will make the black problem of the South look white.”
During the Second World War, 120,000 Japanese Americans would be interned in concentration camps. Defending the current detention of accused terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, some contemporary conservatives have tried to justify the Japanese internment as a necessary war measure. But racism was at its core. “A Jap’s a Jap,” West Coast military commander John DeWitt declared in 1943. “The Japanese race is an enemy race.”
After the 1970s, as Asians developed businesses in America’s inner cities, African Americans became the latest entry on a long list of tormentors. Across urban America, blacks accosted Asians with taunts of “ching chong,” “chow mein,” and other slurs. Rapper Ice Cube denounced “Oriental one-penny-counting” Korean shopkeepers in a 1991 song, warning Koreans to “pay respect to the black fist” or “we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp.”
The same mix of violence and prejudice was on display at South Philadelphia High long before the December attacks. In 2008-09 alone, a legal complaint alleges, Asian students suffered 26 separate assaults at the school, mostly at the hands of African Americans.
But the school district’s recent report on the melee makes no mention of this ugly past, providing an apt metaphor for our shared racial blind spots.
It’s high time we held African Americans to the same moral standards as everyone else, lest we confirm the worst stereotypes of recent history. And it’s also time we acknowledged that Asian Americans have a history, full of anguish and – yes – discrimination. Anything less will yield more of the same.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
12/16/09 NPR: “Racial Tensions Grow Violent At Philly High School: Asian-American Tensions,”
Dozens of Asian and Asian-American Philadelphia high school students are back in the classroom following an eight-day boycott. The students mobilized to demonstrate their frustration after being targeted in a series of violent, racially-charged attacks by their African-American peers. Additionally, those who fell victim to the tensions say school faculty and security personnel did little to intervene or mediate the chaos. Susan Phillips, a Philadelphia reporter for NPR member station WHYY, explains the raucous, the strong emotions brewing beneath the surface and how parents and community leaders hope to make it stop.
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I’m Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, why the Mississippi governor’s proposal to save money by consolidating four of the eight public universities in Mississippi is setting off shockwaves. Here’s a hint: Three are historically black colleges, and the fourth is a women’s college. We’ll hear more about this in just a few minutes.
But first, we’ve been talking a great deal on this program about the issue of safety in school and traveling to and from school, especially after a Chicago high school student, an innocent bystander, was killed in an after-school brawl earlier this year.
Here’s another story: Dozens of Asian and Asian-American students have returned to South Philadelphia High School after an eight-day boycott. The students initiated the boycott after more than two dozen Asian students were attacked at the school, mostly by their African-American classmates. And, the Asian students say, school staff, including security guards, did little or nothing to stop the attacks.
Susan Phillips is a reporter from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. She’s been covering this story, and she’s with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
SUSAN PHILLIPS: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: I just want to give just a sense of the intense feeling and fear that some of these students have. There was a school board meeting that you covered where Vietnamese student Diane Trong(ph) testified. Let’s just hear what she said.
Ms. DIANE TRONG (student): You, me, everybody are human. Why don’t they have rights to live? We have the right to go to school, and we need to be treated fairly. I don’t believe that everybody’s bad, and I wish there is a place where racism does not exist. And right now, we really, really need help and the action from school and the school board. Thank you.
MARTIN: Also at the same meeting, Ellen Somekawa, the executive director of the local group Asian-Americans United, talked about what she thinks is contributing to this environment. Let’s hear what she had to say.
Ms. ELLEN SOMEKAWA (Executive Director, Asian-Americans United): Those comments – where are you from?, Hey, Chinese. Yo, Bruce Lee. Who are you, Dragonballz? Speak English. Those aren’t the words of the bad kids. Those are the words of adult staff at South Philadelphia High. So stop blaming the children and start owning the responsibility.
MARTIN: So Susan, when did all this start? This seems to be a racial issue, racial conflict. Do you – is that what it is, and when did this start?
PHILLIPS: Well, that’s certainly what the Asian students and members of the Asian community say it is. The big day was December 3rd, which was a Thursday, and for some reason, the group of African-American kids decided to attack Asian kids. There were 26 kids attacked, 13 of them were sent to the hospital.
What the kids say and what the leaders of the Asian-American community say is that the adults failed to protect them not just that day but for years, these attacks against Asian immigrant students have been happening within the school, on the streets outside of the school.
I’ve spoken to police officers who confirmed that for me. I’ve spoken to former teachers who confirmed that for me. And what they say is that the staff of the school have not responded, even though members of the Asian-American community have reached out to them, asked them about, you know, having meetings, sitting down, talking. They haven’t responded well.
MARTIN: And what have the school officials said when they’ve been asked about this, as I assume they have been?
PHILLIPS: They certainly have. You know, it sort of has taken different tones. It’s sort of gone up and down. There were times where they seemed pretty defensive and were saying this is not an Asian-black issue. These are students. Kids fight kids all the time.
They’ve recently sort of have come out and, you know, sort of tried to take more responsibility for it because they’ve gotten so much pressure, not just from the press but from the Asian-American community. And they also say that this day – this Thursday day of violence was sort of touched off by a day before where an African-American student who was disabled was attacked by Asian students. Now, the Asian community leaders say the two incidents aren’t related but that’s something that (unintelligible) is related.
MARTIN: In Washington, D.C., we’ve also covered attacks on students by other kids and in these – these are all African-Americans and in this instance, authorities, school officials and the police say that this seems to be gang-related, that these kids – and sometimes it’s a gang initiation. That kids are encouraged to sort of target kids, particularly who go to certain schools, because they’re readily identifiable by their school uniforms. Now, if the school officials are saying this is not racial, what is it?
PHILLIPS: That’s a good question. You know, one of the things that the organizers say over and over again is, this has been going on for years and years, and they pretty much put the blame on the school staff. Like you heard Ellen Somekawa say, staff members are often, according to the students – egg on the African-American students often and will use racial slurs against the Asian students.
MARTIN: They seem to have some animosity toward Asian students.
PHILLIPS: That’s correct.
MARTIN: So let me just briefly in the minute we have left Susan, Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations has stepped in as a mediator in this incident. What’s likely to happen now? What are the steps that are being taken to address this now?
PHILLIPS: Well, the commission is serving as a mediator in this situation. They’ve met with the Asian-American community leaders and district officials and they say it was a positive first step. They’re not really saying much after that. Also what’s happening is the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund is filing a compliant with the federal government, which could lead to a lawsuit.
MARTIN: Which would allege what? That the students are being discriminated against by the fact that…
PHILLIPS: Yes. That the…
MARTIN: …there is not a safe environment for them in which to learn?
PHILLIPS: Right, that there is a history of the school officials disregarding attacks against Asian students that are racially motivated.
MARTIN: Susan, we’d love it if you’d keep us posted on this.
PHILLIPS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Susan Phillips is a reporter for NPR member station WHYY in Philadelphia. She joined us from there. We thank you so much and Happy Holidays to you.
12/14/09 Philadelphia Inquirer: “100 rally to support S. Phila. High’s Asian students,”
by Kristen A. Graham
More than 100 people rallied yesterday in support of Asian students beaten at South Philadelphia High School earlier this month.
Students and community members of all races gathered at the Arch Street United Methodist Church to tell the roughly 30 Asian students attacked during and after school that they applauded their bravery.
The event was held by Asian Americans United to “show the students they are not alone and that there is a broad community of people who care about them and all of the students at the school,” according to organizers.
The students shared their experiences at South Philadelphia High School and in turn won support from the adults and other students in the crowd.
Some supporters read poems. Others told the students they showed more bravery last week than did the adults charged with keeping them safe.
Fred Pinguel, an organizer with the Philadelphia Student Union, was in the crowd.
“It would be easy for them to pursue a narrow strategy, but they’re not. They really have an eye toward making change for all the district,” said Pinguel, who attended with several Student Union members from around the city. The Asian students, he said, are “very brave.”
At the event, the Asian students said that fault lies not with the students who attacked them but with the adults who let the attacks happen.
“Most of the students at South Philadelphia High School – Asian, African American, Latino, and white – are just like us,” the Asian students said in a statement. “They are trying to get an education in a school where they do not feel safe or respected. We are calling on the adults in the school and in the school district to take responsibility for the unsafe environment of South Philadelphia High School that makes it hard for us to learn there.”
On Dec. 3, large groups of mostly African American students attacked 30 Asian students inside the school and outside. Seven students required hospital treatment. Ten students – six African American and four Asian – have been suspended with the intent to expel.
A school district investigation may produce more suspensions, and a police investigation is expected to result in charges, officials said. District officials have also hired an outside investigator to probe the matter.
The school, which was named “persistently dangerous” as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law, has seen overall violence and assaults up this year over last year’s numbers.
The Philadelphia School District has been criticized for its response, which some have characterized as slow and defensive, but officials on Friday announced a host of fixes – more police officers, more cameras, diversity training, a federal program to deal with racial tensions, an outside diversity committee, and an in-school think tank.
The Asian students say they are not satisfied with the district’s response, though they have not said exactly what they want. The students last week boycotted the school, gathering daily to study and look for answers.
It wasn’t clear last night whether they would return to South Philadelphia today.
Representatives from the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations have said they set up a meeting for today involving Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the students, and some observers. It was unclear last night whether the Asian students or anyone representing them would attend.
12/10/09 Philadelphia Daily News: “Asians say officials, not kids, are the problem at South Philly high,”
by Valerie Russ
There is a long history of intolerance, assaults and racial slurs targeting Asian students at South Philadelphia High School, students, parents and community leaders told school district officials yesterday.
” ‘As soon as we open our mouths and speak, they treat us like we’re animals,’ ” Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United quoted a Vietnamese student.
” ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Hey, Chinese.’ ‘Yo Dragon Ball.’ ‘Are you Bruce Lee?’ ‘Speak English!’ ” Somekawa said the students are told.
Those aren’t the words of the students who harass Asians, she said.
“They are the words of the adult staff at South Philadelphia High. So stop blaming the children and start owning the responsibility.”
Somekawa was one of dozens who testified before the School Reform Commission yesterday.
About 150 students and adults had marched to district headquarters on Broad Street near Spring Garden to express outrage over assaults on 26 Asian students last Thursday.
Many of the students have boycotted classes all week.
The protesters carried signs, some reading: “Stop School Violence,” “It’s Not a Question of Who Beat Whom, but WHO LET IT HAPPEN” and “Grown-ups Let Us Down.”
Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the district has formed a “Task Force for Racial and Cultural Harmony.”
And she said the Department of Justice will help the school’s staff and students start a “Spirit Program” to resolve and prevent racial conflicts.
But Ackerman angered some in the audience when she said the attacks last Thursday had been sparked by an incident the day before when two Asian students beat up an African-American student after school near a drugstore.
Helen Gym, of Asian Americans United, said Ackerman’s statement “underscores” the racial nature of the attacks.
“If this were retaliation, then why didn’t the students look for the two students in the Wednesday fight,” she said after the meeting. “They just started attacking students just because they were Asian.”
Over and over again, Asian community leaders said the real problem is “not just a bunch of bad kids,” but the school’s leadership.
Xu Lin, community organizer for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said community members were upset during a meeting with school officials last Friday “to see the principal playing with her cell phone when the students and their parents were giving statements about the violence that had occurred the day before. We were even more offended to see the safety manager . . . sleeping during the meeting in front of the whole community.”
A number of Asian students pointed out that they have African-American friends who have helped them with their English and have been nice to them.
“I am a peaceful person,” Wei Chen, president of the Chinese Student Association, said in an interview after the meeting. “I do not care about the color of someone’s skin. I care about how you treat people.”
At one point, a multiracial contingent of South Philadelphia High students asked the Asian students to come back to school.
Senior student Duong-Thang Ly thanked the students, then added: “We hope to return to school soon, but we want to the school to be safe for all of us.”
12/9/09 whyy.org: “Teacher says she quit because of racial violence at city school,”
by Susan Phillips
A group of Asian students boycotting classes at South Philadelphia High School are addressing the District’s School Reform Commission today.
The students stopped going to class after a series of assaults last week drew attention to what they say is ongoing racial violence at the school. The students say the problem has a long history.
Jenna Sommerkorn worked as a coordinator for the English as a Second Language program during the 2006 – 2007 school year. Sommerkorn says two or three times a month, she witnessed major assaults in the hallways on foreign-born students. But she says school administrators and security staff did not respond to her pleas for help.
Sommerkorn: That was the biggest source of assaults, you had students who would cruise through the floor between classes, just punch somebody or clock a small Asian girl and then run. You would ask someone for their badge and they would verbally abuse you and run.
Sommerkorn says the Asian students were terrified of entering the cafeteria, and often asked to eat in her classroom. She quit after just 8 months on the job.
About 30 students were assaulted last week. This week, 50 Asian students refused to attend classes until the district insures their safety. They say their attackers are primarily African American students.
District officials say they have stepped up security at the school. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is creating a task force to address racial and cultural awareness.
5/14/10 Philadelphia Daily News: “S. Philly High principal resigns over missing certification,”
By Dafney Tales
Beleaguered South Philly High principal LaGreta Brown resigned yesterday after it was revealed that she has not been certified to work as an administrator since 2005.
Brown’s state principal and English certificates have been inactive since July 1, 2005, said Leah Harris, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. The certificates are inactive because she has not complied with ACT 48 requirements, which require public school educators in Pennsylvania to participate in ongoing professional education, Harris said.
State education officials say that they have no record that Brown had been working under an emergency permit. A district spokeswoman confirmed that Brown had never applied for an emergency permit since joining the district at the beginning of the school year.
An educator cannot work in the state without a certificate or an emergency permit – regardless of whether he or she has out-of-state credentials, Harris added.
In a letter to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, Brown wrote that “it has become apparent that I have been made the focus of a controversy that continues to impede the education process to the detriment of the students.”
District officials said that Brown and Ackerman had agreed a couple months ago that she would resign at the end of the school year due to the controversy over racially tinged attacks that erupted at her school in December.
But when news broke of her inactive certificate, she decided to step down immediately, a district spokesman said.
Otis D. Hackney III, principal of Springfield Township High School, in Erdenheim, Pa., will take over the job on July 1. In the meantime, Ozzie Wright, the school’s interim assistant principal, will assume leadership.
State law mandates that school districts check the certificates of their employees.
District officials seemed as perplexed as anyone about Brown’s lack of certification and said they will investigate why Brown was able to work even with an inactive certificate.
Brown had been principal at South Philly High for less than a year. Her short term had been marred by racial violence between Asian and African-American students on Dec. 2 and 3 that spurred a federal probe and prompted students angry over the response to the attacks to stage a weeklong boycott.
The conflict also drew attention from the city and state human-relations commissions.
A report commissioned by the district and compiled by a retired federal judge chronicled the events over the two days of violence and found that school officials had an uncertain response to the clashes.
Asian students who were victimized said the principal and other school personnel had ignored their earlier warnings that they were being targeted, the report said.
Since then, the district has spent $689,000 on 126 new security cameras, has added security personnel and diversity programs, and has reported a decrease in incidents of violence.
Attempts to reach Brown yesterday were unsuccessful, but in March she defended herself at a School Reform Commission meeting after an Inquirer editorial cartoon depicted her as asleep on the job while the school was in disarray. Several people attending the SRC meeting, including principals union president Michael Lerner, condemned the cartoon and offered their support for Brown.
Ackerman also stood by Brown and her handling of the violence, but yesterday she endorsed Hackney’s taking the reins.
“We have spent the past several months making positive changes at South Philly High,” she said in a statement. “These changes have brought about an improved climate for all students at the school. The interviewing committee and I were so impressed by [Hackney] that it determined he was the right person to manage and lead South Philadelphia High next school year.”
Helen Gym, of Asian Americans United, said that any changes weren’t enough, claiming that Asian students continue to face “a hostile environment” in the school.
“We hope for the sake of students, staff and community of South Philadelphia that this change in the administration will signal a renewed effort to address the real and deeply rooted problems which plague this learning community,” Gym said in an e-mailed statement.
Principals union president Lerner believes that Brown was “unjustly singled out for a problem that’s been going on for years” but noted that the issue of certification was a deal-breaker.
“If in fact she does not have a valid certificate, whether emergency or otherwise, it certainly calls into question her ability as an administrator,” he said.
Ackerman was able to dissuade staff yesterday afternoon from casting a “no confidence” vote directed at Brown, at the school at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, said Michael Silverman, regional superintendent for comprehensive high schools.
He said that staff and students don’t want to dwell in the past.
5/13/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “South Phila. High principal resigns,”
by Kristen A. Graham and Jeff Gammage
Embattled South Philadelphia High principal LaGreta Brown resigned Thursday amid questions about her certification.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Brown holds a state principal certificate but it is currently inactive.
A district official said that Brown had agreed to resign after the end of this school year, but after The Inquirer raised questions about her certification, she decided to leave the school Thursday, the official said.
In her resignation letter, Brown wrote that “it has become apparent that I have been made the focus of a controversy that continues to impede the education process to the detriment of the students.”
For the short-term, Brown will be replaced by Ozzie Wright, a retired district principal who has been at the school in an administrative role since December.
Otis D. Hackney III, the current principal of Springfield Township High, will become the permanent principal. Hackney is a former district teacher who worked at South Philadelphia High as an assistant principal on a summer assignment.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman met with staff at the high school this afternoon. As she left the building at 4 p.m. she said she had already spoken with the principal and told her she would not be returning to the high school next year.
“I felt the school needed new leadership,” she said.
She said that right now “it’s not a good learning environment for the children,” and that “the children have to come to school tomorrow with another distraction.”
Ackerman added that the school staff is deeply divided racially. “I’m going to go into that school and get to the bottom of it,” she said
She promised to hold individual meetings with teachers about the direction of the school.
When asked how Brown was taking the ouster, Ackerman said “She’s not happy. Would you be happy? She’s resigning in the middle of the year.”
Regional Superintendent Michael Silverman said the whole situation was sad.
Asked if the school system bore responsibility for not checking Brown’s credentials more closely, he said “I’m not going to answer that one.”
In a statement issued earlier in the day, Ackerman said the school has moved forward since Dec. 3 racial violence.
“We have spent the past several months making positive changes at South Philly High. These changes have brought about an improved climate for all students at the school. Violent incidents have decreased and more students are involved in after school activities,” Ackerman said in the statement.
“I initially interviewed Mr. Hackney as a candidate for one of the Promise Academies,” Ackerman said in the statement. “The interviewing committee and I were so impressed by him that it determined he was the right person to manage and lead South Philadelphia High next school year.”
At the high school, Ackerman described Hackney as student-oriented, a former coach and someone with a great reputation.
Brown, who has been on the job less than year, has been a controversial figure. The school was rocked by racial violence on Dec. 3, when groups of mostly African American students carried out a daylong series of assaults on about 30 Asians.
Seven Asian students were taken to hospitals, and about 50 staged a seven-day boycott of classes.
Brown grew up in West Philadelphia and graduated from Girls High in 1979. In fall 2009 she became South Philadelphia High’s fourth principal in five years, taking over a school that has long failed to meet state performance standards and been labeled “persistently dangerous” under federal law.
A federal civil-rights complaint filed against the district in January leveled several accusations directly at Brown, claiming she showed a discriminatory attitude toward Asian students.
Teachers reported that at a staff meeting before the start of the school term, Brown referred to the English-learners program, centered on the second floor, as, “That dynasty.” Teachers believed that Brown had used the term as a disparaging reference to Chinese dynasties, the complaint said.
In the days after Dec. 3, the complaint said, Brown described community support for the students as “the Asian agenda.” She repeated the phrase in front of teachers before a School Reform Commission meeting on Dec. 9, the complaint said.
The complaint alleged that as school ended on Dec. 3, and large crowds of students milled outside, Brown led and then abandoned a frightened group of about 10 Vietnamese students. The students were subsequently chased, surrounded by a mob of 100 and beaten. However, the official district inquiry said no evidence existed to show that Brown deliberately left the students. Instead, a gap developed between the Vietnamese and their adult escorts, the report said.
The district report on the violence said the assailants in the massive, dismissal-time assault included some white students and a female Cambodian. Asian community advocates said the key point was not the races of the attackers, but that all the victims were Asian.
Teachers had planned to take a no-confidence vote on Brown after school Thursday.
Instead, district officials arrived at the school to announce her departure.
Leah Harris, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said Brown’s principal certificate was issued in 2000 but was inactive “because she has not complied with ACT 48 requirements. Educators with inactive certificates are not permitted to serve in a professional position, they may only substitute teach for 90 days per school year until they comply with ACT 48.”
Act 48 requires teachers and principals to complete continuing education.
Districts can be penalized for having teachers or principals without proper certification. The discipline, generally, comes in the form of the state withholding subsidies, Harris said.
12/15/09 Philadelphia Inquirer: “South Philadelphia High principal left Atlantic City post under pressure,”
by Jeff Gammage
South Philadelphia High School’s principal faces harsh criticism over the Dec. 3 attack on Asian students by some of their African American schoolmates.
But controversy is nothing new to LaGreta Brown.
During nearly a decade in Atlantic City, a tenure that included running the city’s major high school, Brown became involved in numerous disputes with parents, teachers, and staff. Her time there ended in 2008, when she resigned ahead of a school board vote on her dismissal.
Brown is not speaking to reporters while she focuses on fixing South Philadelphia High, district officials said yesterday.
District administrators are not concerned about Brown’s troubled record in Atlantic City, saying she was exonerated of any wrongdoing. She continues to have the strong support of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, said district spokeswoman Evelyn Sample-Oates.
“She came into a rough situation, but she’s trying to do the best she can,” Sample-Oates said. “What happened on Dec. 3, none of us anticipated would happen, at this magnitude.”
That day, large groups of mostly African American students attacked about 30 Asian students both inside and outside the school, sending seven young people to the hospital.
Marcia Genova, president of the Atlantic City Education Association, the teachers’ union, said yesterday that she was surprised Brown had been hired in Philadelphia because “we had so many problems with her here.”
“She just did not know how to treat people,” Genova said. “It was constant. I was constantly at the high school. I constantly filed grievances.”
Brown was hired in October 1999 as the first female principal in the history of Atlantic City High School. She arrived amid great expectations and pledged to create “a blue-ribbon school.”
But three years later, Superintendent Fredrick Nickles recommended that Brown not be rehired. The school board overruled him.
The next year, high school teachers and employees expressed “no confidence” in Brown by a vote of 168-29. The teachers’ union held the April 2003 balloting in response to what it said was a “hostile work environment” created by the principal.
Two months later, Brown was transferred from Atlantic City High to a new alternative school.
In July 2007 Brown was transferred from that school, Viking Academy, to the New York Avenue Elementary School. The next month, she was suspended by school officials for unspecified charges of insubordination. In late April 2008, still under suspension, she resigned from the district, effective Dec. 31, 2008.
The Atlantic City Press documented incident after incident during Brown’s tenure.
In May 2002, teacher Isaac Bord, who is Jewish, said he was harassed and discriminated against when Brown refused him a day off to observe Passover.
In November 2006, the state Attorney General’s Office sought to strip Brown of her license. That stemmed from a March 2001 fire in an Atlantic City High bathroom trash can. The fire did not trigger the fire-alarm system, so the Fire Department did not respond.
Lead safety officer Brian Daniels testified that security officer Brenda Rice told him that Brown had ordered her to deactivate the alarm. Rice denied the claim. In May 2007, the state Education Department dismissed the charges that fueled the attorney general’s action, saying there was no proof that Brown had ordered the system dismantled.
Brown grew up in West Philadelphia and graduated from Girls High School in 1979.
This fall, she took over a school that has for years failed to meet state performance standards and has been deemed “persistently dangerous” under federal law.
Yesterday, Brown and Ackerman were among those who met with the city Commission on Human Relations to try to address tensions at the school. Participants characterized the meeting as productive but declined to share details. About 50 Asian students continue to boycott classes, saying they won’t return until their safety is assured.
On Friday, Brown announced a series of steps to increase security at the school and rebuffed any suggestion that she had been indifferent to the problems of Asian students. “I never have and never will tolerate offensive and negative comments by a teacher or employee directed to a student at any time,” she said.
Asian leaders say they have long tried – and failed – to focus Brown’s attention on safety issues.
Allan Wong, a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs, said that this fall he sought to follow up at three schools where attacks had occurred on Asian students during the previous school year.
Administrators at Samuel Fels and Horace Howard Furness High Schools immediately invited him to visit, showing him how they had added security cameras and developed safety programs, he said.
But he could never get a reply from officials at South Philadelphia High, Wong said. The first time he called, he said, he couldn’t get anyone in authority on the line. The same thing happened the second time. The third time, Wong said, he reached a vice principal who told him that someone from the school would be in touch.
He’s still waiting.
“I was hoping the new principal, LaGreta Brown, would be better, but it doesn’t look like it,” he said. “It’s quite clear to me they have an attitude problem there.”
Xu Lin, a community organizer for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., told the School Reform Commission on Wednesday that he had been happy to have a new principal at South Philadelphia High.
In fact, Brown quickly agreed to hold once-a-month meetings with Asian leaders to address school violence, he said. The first meeting was set for Sept. 29.
But when community advocates arrived, they discovered that the principal “had totally forgotten about the meeting,” Lin said. “We waited for over 40 minutes before we were able to have a brief meeting with her.”
Brown promised to meet again soon, but that hasn’t happened, Lin said.
“I called numerous times and left messages for the principal,” he said, “but I never heard back from her.”
6/26/10 Philadelphia Inquirer: “South Philadelphia High aide who protected students from attack is laid off,”
By Jeff Gammage and Kristen A. Graham
When South Philadelphia High School exploded in racial violence on Dec. 3, community liaison Violet Sutton-Lawson twice risked serious injury to protect Asian students who were being beaten by mobs.
She was disappointed that School District officials never sent her so much as a thank-you note.
This week, they sent her something else: A layoff notice.
“I put my life in danger,” an angry, disbelieving Sutton-Lawson said in an interview. “They just laid me right off.”
Sutton-Lawson, who worked with pregnant students and teenage mothers, was bumped from her job by seniority rules, among 61 support staffers who were laid off to save money and consolidate duties.
Eleven community-relations jobs were eliminated, said spokesperson Evelyn Sample-Oates. But some of those employees had seniority that allowed them to displace other workers. Sutton-Lawson’s job at South Philadelphia High will be filled by one of those longer-tenured workers.
“It’s unfortunate,” Sample-Oates said. “Ms. Sutton-Lawson is welcome to apply for another position with the district.”
Sutton-Lawson earned about $36,000 a year, barely a decimal point in the $3.2 billion school budget but crucial to a woman who doesn’t own a car and lives in a tough area on Wharton Street.
The slashing of those 61 jobs from the payroll has been controversial because the move largely targeted employees who focus on student safety. Laid off with the 11 community-relations workers were 17 nonteaching assistants and 33 climate managers, who help keep schools calm.
It was not immediately clear how much the job cuts would save the district.
A teachers’ union official criticized the layoffs.
“They laid off the lowest-paid people in the district at a time when you read about bonuses for top administrators and additional people in the superintendent’s cabinet,” said Arlene Kempin, a vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
“Clearly,” Kempin said of Sutton-Lawson, “this is a lady who has put the kids first. It doesn’t seem like the district does.”
Sutton-Lawson, 58, said she was saddened and surprised to lose her job, particularly given her actions on Dec. 3. That day, about 30 Asian students were attacked during a daylong series of assaults carried out by groups of mostly African American students.
Sutton-Lawson, who is African American, said that in her job she sees only children, not color.
The violence spawned national headlines, a request from the government of Vietnam that Vietnamese students be protected, and investigations by the School District, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and the U.S. Justice Department.
The district responded by adding security staff and programming, and spending $685,000 to install 126 more security cameras.
The official district report on the violence said that several adults had tried to stop the assaults and help students, and that Sutton-Lawson was particularly courageous.
On Friday, Sutton-Lawson said that after Dec. 3, she had expected to hear from ranking district officials or even Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
“I’m nothing to them,” she said. “Dr. Ackerman never recognized me, never sent me a letter, never a word of thank you, never shook my hand and said thank you.”
Sutton-Lawson said she learned she had lost her job from a June 9 letter signed by Estelle Matthews, the district’s chief talent and development officer. It said her job was being eliminated because of a reduction in staff and she would not be paid after June 30.
She had just completed her second year at Southern, as the school is known, providing a variety of support to pregnant students and teenage mothers so they may get their diplomas. She worked in a program called ELECT, an acronym for Education Leading to Employment and Career Training.
On Dec. 3, at 12:31, she was drawn from her basement classroom to the hallway, where she saw an Asian student sprawled on the floor, being beaten by a mob. Sutton-Lawson dove into the crowd, wrapped her arms around the boy, then glared up at the eight to 10 attackers.
Two minutes later, in the cafeteria, she stepped in front of a group that was punching and kicking a group of other Asian students.
Sutton-Lawson said she was disappointed she had received no warning that her job was in jeopardy.
“The bottom line: I’m doing my job, and doing pretty good. What is this madness?”
12/14/09 Philadelphia Inquirer: “Commentary: Philadelphia school violence abetted by Pa. officials,”
by Jack Stollsteimer
Another school-violence crisis is unfolding in Philadelphia’s public schools. Asian American students at South Philadelphia High School felt they had to boycott classes to bring attention to a reign of terror by violent kids and an indifferent staff. State officials, who run the district in a “reform partnership” with city leaders, have responded with a deafening silence.
When the state Department of Education closed Philadelphia’s Office of the Safe Schools Advocate last summer for supposed want of chump change in its multibillion-dollar budget, officials said the city’s school-violence victims need not worry: Unnamed Harrisburg bureaucrats would protect them. A more hollow promise was never made.
Last year, state Auditor General Jack Wagner confirmed that the department had violated state law since 1995 by failing to establish a safe-schools office to gather violence data from all 501 of the state’s school districts and to address safety issues. Instead, the department has reported false data to the public for years. For example, the Philadelphia School District habitually and significantly underreported school violence until 2005, when investigations by The Inquirer and the safe-schools advocate revealed the truth.
In this latest crisis, the Philadelphia School District is resorting to its usual obfuscation and spin. First, district representatives denied there was a problem. Amazingly, they told the public that violent incidents at the high school had dropped a staggering 55 percent this year, when in fact they had increased 5 percent. This gap between what’s happening and the administration’s knowledge is truly disturbing.
Then the district promised that – now that kids were boycotting school and television cameras were present – it would investigate the attacks on Asian American students, which have been going on throughout the district for several years.
The district also promised to move to expel kids identified in an investigation. But no one explained to the public that, because the district has cut the number of alternative-education slots, the expelled students will be back at South Philadelphia High in six months – and that’s if the district’s dysfunctional discipline system actually expels them in the first place.
Whenever I, as the last safe-schools advocate, tried to remedy the district’s failure to make its schools safe by holding offenders accountable and assisting victims, I ran into a brick wall of resistance from my overseers at the state Department of Education. Department officials are enablers of the district’s dysfunction on issues of discipline and safety.
Some well-intentioned reformers in Harrisburg recently announced an “unprecedented” effort to make the state’s schools safer. The linchpin of their efforts is a laughable piece of legislation that simply restates the current Safe Schools Act, which the Education Department has consistently violated for 14 years. Meanwhile, the legislature just finished eliminating funding for all the state’s safe-schools programs.
We have come to expect incompetence from Harrisburg, but this takes the cake. Everyone wants to stand in front of a television camera and say he’s going to make our schools safe. But what’s missing in both Philadelphia and Harrisburg is enlightened leadership that understands that safer schools come not from spinning news stories, but from the hard work of actually reforming our schools.
Jack Stollsteimer is an attorney and the former safe-schools advocate in Philadelphia.
12/15/09 Philadelphia Daily News:
Letters: At S. Philly High, listen to the students
LIKE MANY, I’ve been increasingly dismayed by the school district response to the recent violence against Asian students at South Philadelphia High. Rather than listening sincerely to the voices of students, officials have focused on prescribing what students “should” do, a tactic that’s only made the situation worse.
On the day of the attacks, students were told they “should” listen to school security guards, who forced students to go to areas of the school where they were intimidated, and even egged on the attackers. Students have been repeatedly told that they “should” return to school, though many Asian students continue to feel threatened.
Further, they are still being told that they “shouldn’t” see an attack on 30 Asian students as a racial incident, as if the climate of intolerance that school officials allowed to fester within the school will magically go away.
Months before this most recent incident, Asian students at South Philadelphia High had been trying unsuccessfully to pressure school officials to address the alarming trend of violence toward immigrants. Even now, the students’ latest attempt at meeting with Dr. Ackerman on their terms are being rebuffed. Ackerman and other school officials should stop trying to determine what is best for these students without seeking their input and simply ask the students themselves.
As a retired ESL (English as a second language) teacher who taught the first Southeast Asians who came to Philadelphia after the Vietnam War, the current problem at South Philadelphia High mirrors what I witnessed daily at University City High School in the early 1980s.
Asian students were frequently assaulted, robbed of their jewelry and the girls had their hair ignited by lighters as they walked in the stairwells. Most assaults went unreported because of language barriers and a distrust of the mostly African-American faculty and administration.
What did the Asian students do to “provoke” these conflicts? They were quiet, respectful and studious, traits looked upon with disdain and jealousy by the thugs who made their school day miserable. Recall that several thousand Hmong or “mountain people” fled Philadelphia and settled in Minnesota after suffering numerous violent attacks.
Nothing appears to have changed in 25 years. Instead of offering sessions in “diversity propaganda,” school officials should treat the dysfunctional culture that creates the thugs who value violence and the streets over education. In the meantime, the administration should move quickly to identify, expel and prosecute them.
MaryAnn F. Swift
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