Two weeks ago, about 25 Asian students were attacked due to a lack of action by South Philadelphia High administrators — and it was not the first time, according to students at the 2101 S. Broad St. school.
The result of the unrest between Asian students and their African-American classmates, who they say are the ones that have attacked them most recently, and the lack of protective, proactive measures by Southern officials, led to the Asian students boycotting classes for eight school days. The students ended their walk-out Tuesday evening after meeting with school officials at a continued session of the Human Relations Commission meeting that began Monday and are slowly returning to class.
In order to involve more students and start a dialogue with school organizations, about 30 still-boycotting pupils agreed to return to Southern yesterday after a "frank and occasionally pointed exchange" with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the students said in a statement.
"Through our trials and struggles, we pushed the school to hear us," the students said. "We have made change by standing together. We are proud of what we have done. If something happens again after all this, we know that we have strong wills and we will stand together again."
Ackerman, the students, Southern Student Ambassadors, parents and community leaders participated in the meeting where Mayor Michael Nutter dropped by, School District of Philadelphia Chief Communications Officer Evelyn Sample-Oates said, adding the students were greeted by Ackerman and their peers on their return to class.
"It was a very welcoming return with the students that were there," Sample-Oates said.
Students have slowly come back throughout this week with the remainder expected to attend classes for the first time yesterday, which was a half-day, but the issue has not gone away.
"The struggle will go on until all the demands are met," the students said in a statement. "We won’t give up … We hope that the school can change their attitude for the benefit of all students."
Friday, Cecilia Chen, an attorney for the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, announced the latter would file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against the district for violating the students’ 14th Amendment that requires states to provide equal protection to all people within their jurisdictions.
Prior to district officials meeting Monday with the city’s Human Relations Commission, Southern administrators announced measures Friday to make the student body into "one big family," Principal Lagreta Brown said, adding administrators also began contacting the injured students to schedule visits with their families. These measures include the installation of 63 security cameras, 21 which were put in over the weekend, and increasing Philadelphia, SEPTA and school police presence with a total of 16 on-site school officers for a total of five more. Five school officers were replaced last week, as was the school’s sergeant, and multilingual school officer Sgt. Robert Samuels was brought in, Ackerman said. Samuels, who speaks fluent Cantonese, knows the culture, as well, as he lived in Hong Kong for seven years.
"We wanted to make sure that there was staff here able to address some of the issues that have been raised," Ackerman said. "Not only from the students and the families who have been boycotting, but from the students and staff who are here and have asked for some changes."
The school will add more counselors and translators, while retired Principal Ozzie Wright will help implement a new safety plan. The Home and School Association will be reinstated and the Rams Head Think Tank established to develop ways to address diversity.
Students will continue to converse through the Peer Mediation Program, faculty will teach diversity and counselors will guide discussions on preventing conflict and violence. Staff also will continue to meet to bolster expectations in terms of conduct towards others.
"We’re trying to overcome this," senior Amina Velazquez, who is a Student Ambassador, said. "We even have students who are trying to learn other languages just so that we can make them feel safer."
The school held the Justice Department’s Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together (SPIRIT) program, which has been in the works since September, Tuesday and Wednesday to identify and resolve racial conflict and the district has hired U.S. District Judge James T. Giles, of the Center City law firm Pepper Hamilton, to begin an independent investigation in the matter. The probe started Monday.
The cost of the additions were not yet known, Ackerman said.
"For me, cost is not the issue," she said. "If what we need to do is to provide more resources to South Philadelphia to stabilize the situation so that everyone feels safe, then that’s what we are going to do."
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, center, and the School Reform Commission listened Dec. 9 to testimony from Asian leaders and Southern students (Staff Photo by Greg Bezanis).
More than 100 Asian students from Southern, as well as other schools, marched from 11th and Vine streets to the School Reform Commission’s meeting at 440 N. Broad St. Dec. 9 while chanting, "Stop school violence." Once there, 16 community leaders and Southern students testified on the issue.
"We know that what happened at South Philadelphia last week is only a symptom of a more serious problem that has its roots in racism, not only in our schools, but in the larger community," Ackerman said last week in her first public comments about the incident.
Ackerman announced the formation of the 50-member Task Force for Racial and Cultural Harmony made up of students, parents and community leaders. Its work began Monday.
Earlier this month was not the first time Asian students had been targeted at Southern, senior Wei Chen told the commission through a translator. In October 2008, about six pupils were beaten outside the institution, prompting Chen to create the Chinese American Student Association.
"At that time, the school board met with us," Wei Chen, the association’s president, testified. "Their only response was, ‘We will keep our eye on this issue,’ but my opinion was that I feel that we should have more security guards at the school and, that time, a representative from the school board said, ‘We will try, but it’s not going to be possible.’"
Wei Chen does not blame any specific ethnic group for the attacks, noting he has many African-American friends, but the staff could have "changed their attitudes" and the attacks would not have happened, he said.
"The hurt that they experienced was not just physical, it was also mental and it changed the way they think about their new country," he said of the victims.
Chaofel Zheng, the association’s vice president, told of how he and his friends were attacked on the way to lunch when a security guard opened a stairwell door, which allowed a group of classmates to charge up the steps to the second floor, which only serves English as a Second Language students. The Asian students were led by a security guard to the lunchroom after the attack, where there was more chaos, he said. With that, he testified, they decided to go home, but were attacked from behind until a teacher broke it up.
The incidents continued outside the building, Duyngoc Truong, who was jumped by a group of 20 as she walked home from school, said. As she and her friends approached Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, they were scared, she added, even with the principal and police at the intersection.
"We crossed the road and the crowds from all the corners started following us," she testified. "The crowds started running at us. When we crossed Passyunk [Avenue], they ran to us and hit us."
"It hurt our bodies," she said. "It also hurt our hearts."
Sophomore Zheng Yan said the staff’s actions disappointed him as they "ran around and actually started cheering," he testified, instead of trying to break up the altercations.
Senior Trung Tran was not officially back to class Friday, but returned to talk to teachers and students to see if the climate had changed. The school needs more activities to reduce the violence and to change the atmosphere, he said.
"We shouldn’t be trading off anything, to be honest," he said. "Basically, we don’t really need more cops. We just need to have better relations between every other student."