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Special Report: Violence at South Philly High

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By G.W. Miller III

 

            Wei Chen called me from South Philadelphia High School in the midst of the violence on Thursday, December 3rd. "I need your help," he said in a message, his voice sounding desperate.

            When I returned his call, he told me that 26 Asian students had been attacked that day inside the school. Bands of aggressors had gone from classroom to classroom, searching for Asian students to assault.

            I didn't know what I could do - I'm a journalist and a college professor, not a cop. But three months earlier, I had written a 3,000-word cover story for the Philadelphia Weekly about the appalling, yet longstanding practice of pounding on immigrant Asian students in Philly public schools. Chen knew that I cared. And he had exhausted his resources.

            For more than a year, packs of teens assaulted Asian immigrant students at South Philly High and very little had been done to address the situation. During the 2008-2009 school year, the principal told the students that there wasn't an issue. Food thrown at Asian students in the cafeteria was dismissed. Daily robberies in the bathroom were brushed aside. Random punches to the face while walking down hallways were ignored.

            "They just hit because you're Asian," Chen, an 18-year old native of China's Fujian Province, told me in August.

            Even when 30 students jumped five Asian students after school near South Philly High in October 2008, the school district did little to ease the concerns of the Asian community. It was merely a "cultural problem," Chen said the principal told him.

 

Living in fear

Chen, who formed the South Philadelphia High School Chinese-American Student Association in the wake of the 2008 attacks, repeatedly tried to meet with the principal but was rebuffed. Xu Lin, a community organizer at the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, tried to intervene.

Their cries fell on deaf ears. Asian students were assaulted about once per week last school year, Chen said, with at least six major outbursts where outnumbered Asian students were attacked by brutal mobs.

            Asian students lived in constant fear, as they have for years in district schools.

            At the same time, similar things were happening at Fels High School in the Northeast. Numerous immigrant students were attacked without provocation - in hallways, stairwells and the cafeteria. A Pakistani student suffered a broken nose and a concussion when a group of students jumped him in a stairwell at the end of the school day.

            He stumbled out of the school with blood pouring down his face. No one called 911. No one from the school contacted him after the event to make sure he was fine. No arrests were made.

            The school administration at Fels held a community forum shortly after that attack, and the violence diminished - though it didn't disappear completely. Asian students continued reporting random violence perpetrated against them. The principal at Fels was removed from that job at the end of the year.

"School climate was an issue in some of my schools," regional superintendent Michael Silverman admitted in August. "That was addressed in principal evaluations. Some people made it better. Some people didn't. Some people are still with us and some people are not."         

 

Still no action 

     The principal at South Philly High was removed as well and Girl's High grad and West Philly native LaGreta Brown was recruited to become the new principal at South Philly High. She told me in August that she would bring Asian students to the table to discuss the violence and possible resolutions. "They will have a voice, and their opinion will be appreciated and valued," she said.

Before the start of this school year, Brown met with Chen and representatives of Asian community groups. She said all the right things, students and community organizers told me afterward.  Since that first meeting, however, Brown has failed to meet with the Asian community groups. She missed one appointment and neglected to return multiple phone calls, community organizers said.

When Chen called me in desperation last week, I was at a loss. My September story, apparently, failed to move the district into action. These poor kids still couldn't get an education because they never knew when they would be attacked.

I was teaching classes at Temple and couldn't leave. So I called my former editor at the Philadelphia Daily News and informed her of the 26 students attacked. They put a reporter on the case and their story the following day led to coverage from the Inquirer and local television stations.  Now the spotlight was on the district.

Nearly a week later, District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman announced she would bring an outside investigator to examine the December 3rd violence. She told the School Reform Commission on Wednesday that she would also create a Task Force for Racial and Cultural Harmony to examine these issues.

I can't help but wonder if any action would have been taken if I hadn't contacted the Daily News and got the wheels rolling. If the mainstream media would have continued to ignore this story, the school district probably would have continued ignoring the Asian students' pleas for help.

George Miller III is a professor of journalism at Temple University.

Read: Violence at South Philly High, Part II

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