This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The second floor auditorium at District headquarters was packed with students and families concerned about the violence at South Philadelphia High School at Wednesday afternoon’s School Reform Commission meeting — holding signs saying "Stop School Violence" and "It’s not a question of who beat whom, but who let it happen."
In lengthy opening remarks, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, noting that this is national Inclusive Schools Week, directly spoke to the issue of what adults in the District would do to prevent such violence, stating the District’s commitment to "safe learning environments where everyone belongs and everyone benefits."
"We know that what happened at South Philadelphia High School last week is a sympton of a more serious problems that has its roots in racism, not only in our schools but in the larger community," Ackerman said. "It is the proverbial elephant in the room and as a District and community we must tackle it head on."
Ackerman offered a wide array of remedies for the racial tension and violence, including:
- A 50-member Task Force for Racial and Cultural Harmony — including parents, students, religious leaders, immigrant groups, and others — has been named and charged with addressing racial conflict in the District, beginning at South Philadelphia. Several of the task force members were introduced at the meeting.
- The Department of Justice will be implementing a new Spirit Program to address racial and ethnic conflicts at the school.
- The District will conduct listening tours that will target young people.
- The District and police are bringing in extra patrols around the school, more school security officers, and extra school staff to maintain a safe environment.
- A new office of diversity has been charged with working on issues at the school; the office is headed by Theos McKinney.
- The District is publicizing its telephone hotline, 215-400-SAFE.
"The vast majority of the students at the school work well together, respect each other’s differences and similarities," Ackerman said. "Let us not as adults criminalize or victimize any racial group of students with a stroke of the pen or careless words of blame and finger pointing."
For well over an hour, a group of nearly 20 speakers, many of them Asian students at South Philadelphia, were providing emotional testimony about their concerns to the Commission in the public speakers’ portion of the meeting, as Ackerman and commissioners listened attentively and asked occasional questions.
Several South Philadelphia students who are attending school encouraged their peers to return, but Asian students from the school were still looking for answers about how the violence was allowed to happen, and did not sound ready to return.