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Unfinished business at S. Philly High

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

Through more than two hours of emotional statements by Asian students from South Philadelphia High School and their allies, the School Reform Commission heard again and again Wednesday that Asian students who were victims of large-scale attacks at the school in December are still not happy with the District’s response.

Student Ming Chen testifies about being attacked on Dec. 3 at South Philly High. Video by Gustavo Martinez.

Nine Asian student speakers from the school said that they did not think the investigation by retired Judge James T. Giles was adequate to bring closure to the controversy.

Some in a crowd of more than 30 Asian students from the school carried signs saying, "6 hours of attacks and not one instance of adult negligence. Really, Mr. Giles?"

Disputing several findings of the investigation, junior Duong-Nghe Ly, who was in the cafeteria when students were attacked on December 3, said, "If it was thorough, then how come I, a witness to the attack, was never contacted or interviewed by Judge Giles? If it was fair, then how come no one ever takes any responsibility for the attack? People have been and are still trying to avoid taking responsibility."

Video by Gustavo Martinez of Tram Nguyen of Victims/Witnesses Services of South Philadelphia.

Reiterating many of the same themes, the 18 speakers on the subject at the Wednesday SRC meeting said the District had fallen short in a number of ways since the attacks:

  • Not listening to the students.
    Many students echoed Ly’s statement that they were never interviewed by Judge Giles’ team or asked by the school administration to tell their stories. A staffer for Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, Tram Nguyen, noted that one of the key elements of any crisis response is to provide "ventilation and validation" for the victims, but she said she had seen "repeated obstacles to students who want to tell their story."
  • Failing to acknowledge that the attacks reflected anti-Asian, anti-immigrant violence.
    From Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United: "The students who were attacked on December 3 were targeted because of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and the accents in their voices. Period. Rather than rush to the scene and decry racial violence, express concern for the victims, and commit to combatting bias, the District response has been to distort and minimize – dismiss, deny, and obscure the scale and nature of these attacks."
  • Inadequately investigating and failing to act against staff who behaved inappropriately.
    Student Dong Chen said that some school staff had been unwilling to call an ambulance to take injured students to the hospital. Others had ordered students to leave the building even though they feared they would be attacked on the way home, which is what happened. "We can identify those who ordered us to leave," Chen said. But he said students had never been asked.
  • Failing to communicate adequately with Asian students’ families
    Many students said that their families had never gotten any communication from the school about the violence. One student’s grandmother spoke at length about the District’s failure to communicate with her about her grandson, whose name she said should be cleared. Suong Nguyen said the District had repeatedly failed to respond to her after her grandson was first beaten in an incident outside the school on December 2, suspended and then expelled to a disciplinary school, and then falsely accused of being a gang member.
Video by Gustavo Martinez of Amanda Bergson-Schilcock of The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians.

Before the public comment section of the meeting, Commission Chair Robert Archie asked the students from South Philadelphia High School to stand, and then read a prepared statement, including an apology.

"I admire your courage for coming here today to express your opinion and exercise your constitutional right. I want to assure you that we have put into place many new initiatives, programs and safety mechanisms to improve school safety at South Philadelphia High School….

"We are aware and sensitive to not only the recent history, but to the long history… going back more than 25 years … of racial tension at South Philadelphia High School between racial and ethnic groups…. While we want to learn from history, we have to keep moving forward together with you.

"Again, I would like to use this moment to publicly apologize for what happened to you, because no student should go to school to be attacked or harassed ever, in any classroom, or hallway, or staircase or lunchroom in this district."

Testimony from Hao Luu’s grandmother, Mrs. Nguyen. Video by Gustavo Martinez

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