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Race matters: Groundbreaking agreements put racial bias front and center

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

December 15th marked one year to the day that a historic boycott by Asian immigrant youth ended after gaining national and international attention to racial violence at South Philadelphia High School. The groundbreaking agreements by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission make clear the responsibility of school officials to protect students from racial and ethnic bias and harassment.

What the Justice Dept. recognized was that what happened at South Philadelphia High School was a series of specific failures that they believed violated the civil rights of youth based on their race, ethnicity, and/or country of origin. That is a message that every educator in this country needs to hear.

The decision to seek remediation through the Department of Justice was a conscious one by community members who sought not money or lengthy lawsuits, but lasting change and acknowledgment of racial bias and deliberate indifference to the severe and pervasive harassment against Asian youth at the school. Yet the message sent by these agreements should extend far beyond South Philadelphia High School.

“We hope that the investigation and our settlement agreement represent the start of a corrective action plan that eventually will eliminate student-on-student harassment in all Philadelphia public schools, not just South Philadelphia High School,” said Zane David Memeger, U.S. Attorney General for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The settlement agreement requires school staff to report, investigate, and stop racial and ethnic bias and harassment, a significant statement about schools’ responsibility. It not only addresses harassment, but seeks its prevention. It requires:

  • a consultant so that this is not completely a District-owned and operated remediation;
  • multicultural and anti-harassment trainings;
  • regular reviews and reports; and
  • a crisis-response plan for victims of harassment.

While the DOJ and Human Relations agreements are a victory for communities across this city, it should be remembered that the real story of South Philadelphia High School won’t be found in the courts, or policies, or in leaders with titles. It was always about the work of ordinary people who felt invested and empowered to make change. From young immigrant youth to community advocates who doggedly pursued the issue, from compassionate journalists to partnering community groups, this was a story of transformation and possibility and an abiding belief in the strength and power of multiracial communities working together.

Below are statements released by the South Philadelphia High School Asian Students Advocates (Asian Americans United, Boat People SOS, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund) and the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia. Finally, on behalf of the students and community advocates, I’d like to thank the Notebook community for its principled support and passionate commitment to improving schools for all our students.

SASA Statement on Justice Dept. settlement agreement on South Philadelphia High School

Helen Gym, Asian Americans United

As advocates and organizers who have worked to address both anti-Asian/anti-immigrant bias as well as racial and ethnic harassment and violence in schools, we welcome the School Reform Commission’s approval of ground-breaking agreements with the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

In these agreements, for the first time, the District recognizes and decries anti-Asian and anti-immigrant bias and violence and accepts a clear responsibility to immediately address all instances of racial and ethnic violence. What could have been a simple act of educational and moral leadership by the District a year ago, instead required over a year of bruising struggle and finally the intervention of federal and Commonwealth authorities.

These agreements demonstrate that the violence at South Philadelphia High School was racial. It wasn’t about gangs or retaliation, violent homes or adolescent differences. The focus of our complaint was never about problematic young people but about a School District that had failed to do everything in its power to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for learning. As appalling as the December attacks on Asian immigrant youth were, it was the egregious conduct of school and district officials in the months leading up to that day and the months since that warranted federal intervention. We celebrate the lasting gains of these agreements; we hope they are received with a measure of abiding humility and deep sorrow for the lack of action which required it.

We fought hard and unrelentingly to establish these agreements through these particular agencies because we know that indifference to racial and ethnic violence, and to anti-Asian, anti-immigrant violence in particular, is pernicious and widespread in too many parts of this district. We know also that racial and ethnic violence is a particular form of violence that demands specific responses. Racial and ethnic violence silences and intimidates entire communities. Racial slurs, threats, and harassment send a message to entire communities that they are not welcome and that they are not safe.

We know that the challenges here are difficult, but we cannot continue to act as if all kids ought to just get along. While racial and ethnic violence is always reprehensible, it is important to remember that its continuation is made possible by institutional response. If we understand that racism and bias is a learned behavior then we also understand that schools have both a responsibility and a moral charge to actively engage students in unlearning such behavior, to build multiracial, multicultural communities that can tackle what must be the toughest issue of our time: race. For decades, our organizations have been part of that mission and we continue to seek to work with you on that effort.

Today a year after a historic boycott brought attention to this issue, we look back on an incredible year of transformation, on a level that is rare in situations such as this. We remain encouraged by principal Otis Hackney, whose ability to calm and manage the school should send a clear message about the role of competent and compassionate school leaders and the detrimental impact of poor ones.

Above all, we are inspired by the courage and faith of Asian immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High School. Before these historic agreements, before a new principal arrived, before the public support and federal inquiry, this struggle and the sweeping changes it has evoked started simply with the voices of students, some of whom had arrived in this country only a few weeks before violence descended. It is their voices that have transformed a school and city, inspired other students, and created a partnership that lives up to the best of this nation’s ideals.

Asian Student Association of Philadelphia Statement

Wei Chen & Duong Ly, South Philadelphia High School

One year ago today, December 15th, 2009, the students of the South Philadelphia High School boycott decided to suspend our 8-day boycott after gaining national and international support for our effort to stop racial bias against us and fight for truly safe schools . Today, December 15th, 2010, we are here to witness our next victory: the Consent Decree enforced by the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the PA Human Relations Commission.

We are here today to emphasize that this agreement did not come into existence by itself. We the students and the community advocates went to the Dept. of Justice and PHRC in order to ensure that the changes at our school lasted for students beyond just us. We did not want money or lawsuits. What we wanted was a clear statement that what had been happening at our school was wrong in the eyes of the federal government. This action shows that the U.S., our country, believes that every child has a right to a safe school, which is protected by the U.S. Constitution and upheld by the courts.

We are here today to be a part of our own victory. However, we do not forget the many students who have dropped out or lost faith and are not here because too many school officials have let them down.

Many people tried to tell us that it was not racial what was happening to us. But what people have to understand is that Asian youth do suffer from racial bias, from people calling them names and adults not doing anything, from making fun of our accents, the way we dress, who we hang out with. We know other students suffer from racial bias in schools or from other biases as well. Recently, many LBGT students have been harassed all around the country, many of whom have committed suicide because nobody spoke up against bullying. We hope that we can share this victory with all those students who have been victims of bias.

As much as this past year was hard on all of us, many times we felt lifted up by people all across the city and this nation. People sent us letters of support, community allies worked with us and taught us how to use our voices and build new relationships, other students across the city who supported us. Today we are no longer the students of the South Philadelphia High School boycott. We are the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia.

We will always remember December 3, but we refuse to be defined by that day. A year ago we came to you as victims. Today we come to you as youth activists, as organizers and leaders who have shown the power to make change. We thank the Dept. of Justice and PHRC and will continue to work closely with them to ensure that South Philadelphia High School is a better school for all students.

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