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Racial assaults at S. Philly: What went wrong

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

The latest beatings of Asian students reported at South Philadelphia High School are an outrage.

The ordeal began Wednesday, Lin said, when a Vietnamese student was jumped by 14 students across the street from the school.

Yesterday, the attackers were roaming the halls "searching for victims class by class during school," he said.

About 12:30 p.m., Tian and two friends were heading to the cafeteria when someone ran up and hit him in the head from behind, Tian said through Lin, who translated.

"I tried to escape," Tian, a freshman, said. "I ran and they chased me and beat me on the nose."

His friend Shan Chen, 18, also a freshman, was pushed to the ground, punched and kicked, Chen said.

Seven of the victims, including Tian, were treated at Methodist Hospital for scrapes and bruises.

Equally outrageous? Regional Superintendent Michael Silverman’s quote in the paper.

Michael Silverman, who oversees the city’s 32 neighborhood schools, said that assaults in the school are down by 50 percent.

"We’ve been working with the Asian community since last year to make sure that South Philly High is an inviting place," he said.

Note: When two dozen students are tracked down and beaten room-to-room during school hours and some are sent to the hospital, excuses and a lack of outrage about the situation are not the first order of business.

Although the attacks started Wednesday, community members who’ve been working on violence at South Philly for 18 months weren’t notified by the school. On Friday, these community members were still waiting a call back from the District.

For more than a year, a team of Asian community members has been working on the violence at South Philadelphia High School – including Asian Americans United, the Cambodian Association, Victims and Witnesses Services, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.

They’ve worked respectfully and diligently for the past year to document the offenses, meet with administration, counsel Asian immigrant students, and give them confidence that these attacks are being addressed.

The community pushed for new leadership at the school, and South Philadelphia High School has a new principal as a result. According to the District, the school climate has improved and assaults at the school are down. That is to the credit of hardworking community folks who took this issue seriously.

But the latest attacks show that the climate at South Philly High, and in particular, the treatment of Asian immigrant students, is racially driven, and the attacks come out of a deeply rooted culture of abuse that is corrosive to every community member at the school, not just the victims.

Silverman’s comments above show that the District’s counting of the number of assaults gives zero insight into the climate at South Philadelphia High. They may marginally deal with victims and perpetrators, but certainly not the culture at the school that has led it for the past 18 months to this point.

Not surprisingly, the District has taken its typical form of "immediate action" – suspension.

Yippee. They’ve been suspending kids for the past 18 months since brave Asian students came forward and began demanding action from the principal and their teachers. This isn’t about grandstanding on suspensions, zero tolerance, crackdowns on the so-called “bad kids,” tough on crime, and machismo-like approaches to school violence that make the headlines.

South Philly High is a deeply troubled high school, where too many of our students are victims and where we as adults need to seriously knuckle down and address the root causes of problems.

In particular, I want to stress that I’m also sick of having folks portray the Asian immigrant students in this situation solely as helpless victims. Many of these immigrant students have become articulate and impassioned leaders for youth voices. They’ve written platforms about what they need from their principals and teachers. They need to be heard – and the recommendations they’ve made over the year taken seriously.

A new chapter needs to happen for all these young people – the assault victims, the perpetrators, and their confused peers, who need us as adults to come up with better answers than we have for the past 18 months.

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