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More violence and failure at S. Philly High: What hasn’t changed at all

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

It’s been almost four months since the Dec. 3 violence at South Philadelphia High School. How are things going?

Two weeks ago, a recent immigrant Chinese student testified at the School Reform Commission about ongoing violence at the school.

He and his brother had arrived at Southern post-Dec. 3, and heard about the anti-Asian violence on their very first day. Earlier this month, two students at the school kicked a bathroom door into his brother’s face as he was coming out of the bathroom resulting in the boy cracking his head against the side wall.. The boy’s parents received an urgent call from their son inside the school, but were turned away by school security while they struggled to explain why they were there.

Following the testimony at the SRC the parents got a call from the school to return. Although they were at the school for more than two hours, the parents never once saw South Philly High Principal LaGreta Brown, who was in the building, nor did they get a follow-up checking-in on their son from anyone at the school.

So this boy travels thousands of miles to go to school at South Philly and hears about anti-Asian violence on his very first day. But no one at the school ever bothered to orientate the boy or his family toward any policies for new immigrant students; no one ever discussed a safety plan in case of harassment or introduced the boy and his family to concerned personnel at the school who could address any concerns the boy or his family had. For this new family, no new lessons were learned from Dec. 3. Instead, the boy becomes yet another on-going stat in the litany of continued negligence of school and District officials at South Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the tragic suicide of a young Irish immigrant girl in Massachusetts earlier this year has school and local officials across the country rethinking their responsibilities around bullying and harassment.

The case bears terrible similarities to what’s been happening at South Philadelphia High for years. Most of the bullying was during school hours and on school grounds. The girl was targeted because she was from a different country, according to one peer. There was physical harassment as well as verbal. And the harassment was done in full view of school officials:

"The investigation revealed relentless activities directed toward Phoebe to make it impossible for her to stay at school," Ms. Scheibel said. The conduct of those charged, she said, "far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels."

It was particularly alarming, the district attorney said, that some teachers, administrators and other staff members at the school were aware of the harassment but did not stop it. "The actions or inactions of some adults at the school were troublesome," Ms. Scheibel said, but did not violate any laws.

As a result of her suicide and a recent civil lawsuit by a gay teenager who was also tormented until he was forced to leave his school, the Massachusetts legislature is moving on an anti-bullying law. The D.A. just this week moved to issue felony indictments against nine of the girl’s high school classmates this week, and serious dialogue is had in the school and District about their responsibilities.

Let’s contrast that with what’s happened at South Philadelphia since the Dec. 3 violence:

  • denial and scoldings toward community advocates who had made this issue take up "too much time" for Superintendent Arlene Ackerman;
  • a $100,000 "investigation" that left us with little new information;
  • retaliation against specific students;
  • an entrenched administration which has protected the irresponsible actions of Principal LaGreta Brown, Regional Superintendent Michael Silverman, and others; and
  • a complete lack of dialogue with Asian community advocates and student boycotters who have been active for more than a year in addressing violence at South Philly High.

It’s not just the School District. The silence from any city or state agency on the on-going violence has been deafening as well. Not the Mayor. The D.A. Not a single state legislator, nor the governor (this is a state run school system after all). Only the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has made some initial forays into tackling the issue head on.

What’s remarkable about what’s happening here is how localized violence becomes institutionalized. School and city officials have a clear responsibility for the welfare of children in our schools and a moral imperative to send a strong message about anti-immigrant, anti-Asian hate in our city. They sent an unequivocal message around flash mobs. But there’s been not a word when it comes to the failure of school officials to make efforts to address and stop racial harassment. Instead, there’s been public support issued for the District from both city and state officials.

It’s telling that the District report released last month declared that things had improved at South Philly, and as its measure said that nothing on the scale of Dec. 3 had happened since – as if that is now the new standard.

But as one new family now knows, despite all the claims by District officials, not enough has really changed.

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