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Asian group files federal civil rights complaint over South Philly violence

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

The School District of Philadelphia failed to protect Asian students in South Philadelphia High School from harassment and violence, displaying "intentional disregard" for their welfare, according to a complaint filed today by Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund with the federal Department of Justice.

The 11-page complaint charges that District personnel with "deliberate and discriminatory indifference" against Asian students in violation of the 14th Amendment. It asks the Justice Department to start an investigation. It describes in detail several different encounters throughout the day on December 3, when Asian students were assaulted in and around the high school, sending 13 to hospitals. One suffered a broken nose.

In addition, the District sought to "cover up" and minimize the incident afterwards and downplay concerns that Asian students were the subject of harassment, according to the complaint.

More than 50 students boycotted the school for eight days, saying they didn’t feel safe. They returned after Superintendent Arlene Ackerman finally agreed to meet with them, a week after the incident.

Thoughout the day, and for a year before, according to AALDEF, students and Asian advocacy organizations had "urged school and District officials to address the increasingly hostile environment for Asian students at SPHS without success."On December 3, the principal refused students’ request to eat in the safety of their classes, some security guards ignored attacks in the lunchroom and elsewhere. At the end of the day, staff declined to call medical personnel or inform the parents of the injured students, according to the complaint. It says one staffer tried to dissuade the parent of the student with the broken nose from calling 911. An ambulance arrived only after a Chinese student called local community advocates.

The School District has not yet commented on the allegations.

UPDATE: The District issued a statement Tuesday evening strongly disputing the charges while saying it "was not surprised by the complaint."

"The claim of ‘intentional discrimination’ makes no sense," the statement said. "Asserting that the District would have ‘intentional disregard’ for the welfare of its students is as outrageous as it is hurtful to so many professionals, students, and others who have been devoted to addressing these issues in a meaningful manner."

The statement also outlines steps taken "to address racial tension and reduce violence," including initiating its own investigation, redeploying security, putting more staff in the school lunchroom, adding four officers to the school for a total of 15, installing "state of the art" surveillance cameras, working with city police to increase the safety of students going to and from school, working with community groups and instituting more staff training in "cross cultural and intergenerational competency."

The District has also begun using a Department of Justice-sponsored conflict resolution program.

"We look forward to cooperating with the Department of Justice in every way possible and trust that the District’s intentions and efforts in South Philadelphia will come to be characterized fairly," the statement said.

For more than a year before December 3, AALDEF "documented and reported incidents of harassment against Asian students to school administrators and district officials," the complaint said. But these officials "repeatedly reneged on promises to address the harassment, disregarded incidents of harassment against Asian students reported by advocates, and ignored the increasingly hostile climate towards Asian students at the school."

The complaint says that Asian students were routinely harassed in the cafeteria "while security guards remained indifferent." On December 3, after teachers had observed "a group of African American students roaming from classroom to classroom" on the second floor, where English as a Second Language is taught, they told principal LaGreta Brown that Asian students feared for their safety.

They asked Brown to eat lunch in the classroom rather than the cafeteria, but she "flatly refused…and ordered a security guard to escort the Asian students" to the lunchroom. A group of Chinese students who turned to leave the cafeteria before entering were "attacked from behind" by schoolmates. One student suffered a black eye, head trauma, and serious bruises.

The complaint also alleges that Brown offered to escort ten Vietnamese students home through "large groups" of schoolmates congregating on the sidewalk after they had expressed their fears. She went back to school, however, and "two large groups of predominantly African American students began to follow them." On Mifflin Street, "the large groups of students ran towards the Vietnamese students [who] were surrounded and assaulted by as many as forty African American students." Seven of the 10 were sent to the emergency room.

Even though some Asian students had gotten parental permission to leave school early and had signed passes from their teachers, "security guards refused to allow students to leave," the complaint said.

One Vietnamese student "was attacked and beaten by ten African American students in a classroom while he was talking to a teacher," the complaint said.

Before December 3, the complaint said, Asian students were routinely referred to by racial slurs such as "Chink," made fun of for their accents, and mocked when they spoke their native languages. Non-Asian students threw food at Asian students, cut in front of them in the cafeteria line, and unleashed verbal slurs when the Asian students stood up for themselves.

Adult staff also engaged in racial namecalling, the complaint said. Principal Brown herself, who started at the school in September, "has displayed discriminatory attitudes towards Asian students," the complaint said, because she called the ESOL program "that dynasty." After the attacks, she referred to the boycott and persistent efforts to address the incident as "the Asian agenda." Brown also said that attacks on Asian students on their way home were not the school’s responsibility, despite District policy.

Asian students were afraid to report many of the incidents due to fear of retaliation, but when advocates sought meetings with District personnel throughout the year to address the overall hostile climate, they said they couldn’t do anything unless incidents were fully reported.

AALDEF attorney Cecilia Chen said that "immigrant students are still being targeted and threatened at the school."

On Monday, Martin Luther King Day, Ackerman, Brown and other civic and religious leaders held a unity gathering at the school. Ackerman said she understood how the Asian students felt because she suffered similar treatment as a Black student attending a previously all-White school in the South in the 1950’s. She also said she regretted that all Black students were being characterized by the media as "thugs and criminals" in the wake of the incident.

After a review, the DOJ will decide whether to investigate. The actual investigation could go on for months.

Other agencies are already investigating, including the District itself and the city and state human relations commissions.

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