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Gearing up for a long struggle at S. Philly

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Before a multiracial crowd of about 100 adult and student supporters on Sunday, several of the Asian students who have been boycotting South Philadelphia High School since the violent attacks of December 3 aired their frustration that their efforts have not gotten more support from the school administration and the District.

The crowd braved a steady downpour to attend what was billed as a "Rally to support the South Philadelphia High School students" at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Center City.

Speaking in his native language through an interpreter, Wei Chen, 18, president of the Chinese American Student Association at the school, reiterated the students’ position that "violence in the schools is a failure of adults." Chen has been at the school since 2007, when he emigrated from Fuzhou, China, and his student group has focused on addressing attacks on Asian students since its formation.

Nancy Nguyen of Boat People SOS, who has been meeting with 50 or more of the boycotting students this past week and emceed the solidarity rally, noted, "What we’ve started is not going to finish any time soon." But she added, "We are strong, we are united, and we will win the changes we need in South Philadelphia High School."

For anyone wondering why the students are not satisfied with the District’s 13-point plan for improving safety at the school, speakers made very clear that students are concerned about staff still at the school who failed to intervene and in some cases may have enabled attacks on Asian students to take place. In addition, students were obviously troubled by their sense that the District leadership had initially minimized the assaults – even though seven students required hospital treatment – and then was slow to investigate, yet was quick to tell students and their families that the school is now safe and pressure them to return immediately.

Pointing to a pattern of violence and harassment of Asian students at South Philadelphia, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund announced on Friday its plan to file a complaint of civil rights violations with the U.S. Department of Justice against the Philadelphia School District.

Nguyen noted that the District’s promised changes do include some important "wins" for the students:

  • Adding a speaker of Cantonese to the school’s security force (though there are no Mandarin- or Vietnamese-speaking security officers).
  • Providing cultural sensitivity training for security personnel.
  • Installing security cameras throughout the school.
  • Launching an independent investigation of the violence this week, which the students hope will include interviews with all those affected by the attacks.
  • Adding more bilingual staff to the school.
  • Offering training on cultural awareness to students.

Students don’t appear ready to end their boycott, but the city’s Human Relations Commission says they want students and their parents to meet with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and principal LaGreta Brown in a private session Monday morning.

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