School Violence: How the Philadelphia School District Failed Its Students

12/18/2010 01:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's been a lot of talk this year about how America's schools are failing its children. That talk has focused primarily on two separate issues: 1) the quality of education and 2) bullying in schools. In the case of South Philadelphia High School in the Philadelphia School District, however, the school and its district failed on both fronts.

The following is a timeline of events that transpired over the last year at South Philadelphia High School and in the Philadelphia School District. Most of the links direct to posts by Angry Asian Man, who was our main source -- and probably many others' -- on these events:

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. 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, according to current stats, 64.6 percent African American, 22.4 percent Asian American, 6.3 percent White, 5.8 percent Latino, and 0.8 percent Other, yet district officials were quick to dismiss that the December 3 attacks had been racially motivated.

After meeting with district officials following the attacks, a group of over 60 Asian students from South Philadelphia High 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."

At the start of the new year, in January, 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:

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.

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.

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 ongoing harassment of Asian immigrant students and the school's failure to respond creates a hostile climate for Asian immigrant youth at South Philly.

Innuendo and rumors as deflection: I was particularly troubled by the use of innuendo and rumor to suggest that the events of Dec. 3 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, the U.S. Department of Justice informed the Philadelphia School District that they'd 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.

And then, 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.

While this settlement is a well-deserved victory for the Asian students of South Philadelphia High School and their tireless advocates, and it sets a precedent for effectively dealing with bullying and intimidation in our schools, one can't help but look back on this yearlong fight, a fight that was courageously undertaken by a group of children, a fight for justice, fairness, and the very basic rights, and not be galled that it had to be a fight in the first place.