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First steps at South Philly High: Will they lead to lasting change?

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

Duong Ly, student: “We remember December 3rd but we will not be defined by it.”

A year ago today, more than 50 Asian immigrant students boycotted South Philadelphia High School and demanded the attention of the city.

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The eight-day boycott, which made news from coast to coast and from Europe to Asia, followed a daylong assault on more than two dozen Asian immigrant students, sending 13 to the hospital. During the boycott, students testified that the attacks of Dec. 3, 2009, were no anomaly but part of a pattern of racial harassment and violence well known to school and District officials, who had failed to act time and time again.

A year later, there’s no doubt South Philadelphia High School is a very different school. A new principal, an energized student base, emerging partnerships, a commitment to addressing school violence – all have resulted in striking progress. The violence and chaos of last year is largely gone, and students report a changed attitude from staff members, some of whom had participated in the harassment by mocking their accents and refusing to take seriously their reports of racial bias. But the absence of physical violence is hardly a sufficient standard for an institution of learning.

Despite the progress, it’s clear that racial biases and stereotypes linger, community tensions simmer under the surface, adults still claim that racial bias isn’t a factor at the school, and the District continues to evade responsibility for changing the climate of schools.

As we reflect on a year of work, here are some portraits that come to mind.

* * *

I walk through the halls of South Philadelphia High School with new principal Otis Hackney and wonder whether change begins as simply as this:

A handshake and greeting in the hallway for students who pass by.

Holding the door open for a student loitering in the stairwell: “This door is for you. How about we get going now?”

We pass a classroom where a student is asleep at their desk by the doorway. “GOOD MORNING everyone! What do we have here – math? My FAVORITE class. You know I used to teach math.” The student wakes up.

Since he started the job in July, Otis Hackney has gone non-stop, reaching out to community members, rebuilding relationships, establishing a culture of respect and professionalism, and showing people that this is not the South Philadelphia High School of last year. He’s ensured that language translation is a top priority. He’s created a sense of belonging through a 9th grade academy, a parent resource center, and a new swim program.

He’s stripped down the Safe Haven signs that marked certain classrooms in the days after the December violence.

“My whole school has to be a safe haven,” he said during my November visit.

Last year, the District did everything possible – from scapegoating student victims to blaming violent communities – to avoid holding accountable former principal LaGreta Brown. The striking improvement in climate leaves little question about the impact of a strong leader like Otis Hackney – and the detrimental impact of a poor leader like Brown.

And while South Philly High has seen wads of cash thrown around on various contracts, new policies and programs, and trainings – perhaps the real work starts with the most basic of things: a principal walking through his halls, engaging and greeting all his students like they are his own.

* * *

* * *

In February 2010, the District hired James Giles, a former federal judge, to write a $100,000 report on the Dec. 3 violence at South Philadelphia High School. His report was excoriated for its refusal to hold accountable school or District leaders; its focus on punitive recommendations; and the failure to fully interview a significant number of student victims and witnesses. Even with its deficiencies, the report is a stunning account of the scope and targeted nature of the assaults:

“At approximately 8:45 a.m., a group of predominantly African American students attacked an Asian student in Classroom 424.”

Around 10:30 a.m. a sergeant escorted a group of Vietnamese students back to their classroom. “When the Sergeant left his office to escort the Asian students, a group of 7-8 African American students in the first floor hallway began yelling at the Asian students. The group seemed prepared to move toward the Asian students, despite his presence. He yelled at them to stop and disperse.”

“A group of 30-40 African American students tried to enter the second floor en masse. . . This resulted in a surge of students onto the second floor.” Asian students were hustled into classrooms.

By lunchtime, “Security footage of the lunchroom hallway that we reviewed shows a rather sudden, seemingly orchestrated, wave of as many as 60 to 70 students . . . surging forward, with a much smaller faction attacking a small group of Asian students. . . . These students were hit in the head, hands, arms, and back by flying fists and kicking feet . . . Chinese students interviewed described curling into balls and shielding their faces to protect themselves.”

At around 1:30 p.m. three to five female students “allegedly assaulted an Asian female student before ‘dragging’ her by the hair down the steps of a stairwell.”

Afterschool, a group of 10 Vietnamese students requested help walking home. “When the Asian students ran, they were followed by a group of 20 to 40 persons. . . . a wave of onlookers numbering more than 100 surrounded them” as they were attacked.

A month prior, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund had filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Justice documenting more than a year of relentless harassment toward Asian youth, with school officials failing to address or even acknowledge the violence, denying language translation, and in some cases participating in the harassment themselves.

This past summer the U.S. Dept. of Justice issued a finding of merit that the School District of Philadelphia had violated the civil rights of Asian youth at the school by failing to protect them from racial harassment and violence.

* * *

“Considering where we came from, I think we’re moving in a fantastic direction,” says teacher Dean Coder, whom I spoke with this week.

New leadership has made a huge difference, but before Hackney’s arrival came the young people.

“It was really the Asian youth standing up and asserting themselves” and demanding change in their school that made everyone sit up and listen, Coder said.

“It forced the School District to admit there was a problem they had to address, and the publicity made some people look inward. I’m not sure anyone is really aware of the magnitude of what they did, and how much it took to stand up not just to the principal but to the School District and their own parents.

“It changed everything,” Coder said.

* * *

The collective memory is short, a teacher says:

“A lot of people want to move on and they think the job is done.”

Calming down the school remains a foremost priority, but the larger work of healing a school so deeply fractured remains, to date, elusive. The pain from the failure to properly address the violence last year still runs deep. At a community forum last week, a Town Watch representative insisted that the attacks at South Philadelphia weren’t racial. Biases and stereotypes simmer with lingering resentment from various quarters that Dec. 3 was blown out of proportion by media coverage, or worse, that the assaults didn’t even merit attention.

There’s a clear reluctance to tackle such biases directly. Conversations focus on “safety” and “climate” but less on the fact that the school is becoming increasingly more Asian with little clarity about how students and staff are better understanding and addressing multiracial and multilingual diversity within the school.

“We don’t want to stir the pot,” says one administrator in a forum, receiving nods from others. Surprisingly, it’s a District official who chides the group. “Sometimes the pot has to be stirred,” she says.

Now that the urgency of a crisis is over, will South Philadelphia High School allow time and create space for interracial dialogue and a deeper understanding beyond mere tolerance?

* * *

For Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School, Dec. 3, 2009, was a watershed moment.

"We remember that day, but we’re not letting that day define who we are,” says senior Duong Ly. “We have the power to change who we are and how people look at us.”

A year later, those young boycotters – one of whom arrived only six weeks prior to the December 2009 violence – embody the transformative possibilities of positive change. In the past year, they have organized fellow students across racial, ethnic, and language boundaries; given testimony at commissions and public hearings; led workshops on youth organizing and anti-Asian violence from Cornell University to Houston to Boston’s Chinatown. They’ve organized themselves into a broader group called the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia. They’ve marched for immigrant rights in DC, supported citywide anti-violence forums, , and participated in neighborhood cleanups.

They’ve accomplished this in the face of school circumstances most of us would find unimaginable. And they did it with grace and an unwavering sense of justice – not just for themselves but for young people across the city.

This afternoon, they will lead a commemorative event of Dec. 3 at their school, guided by their slogan: "We have the power to make change."

Standing next to them will be their principal, their partners from student groups across the city through the Campaign for Non Violent Schools, and their fellow classmates at South Philly High.

“Starting from us, we can change injustice and fight for the right to our education,” said student leader Wei Chen.

The memorial won’t be a day of mourning, but a marking of the moment when young people stood up courageously to violence, led while adults lagged, and in the process changed a school and their reality.

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