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S. Philly High violence: Time to clear the record about Dec. 2

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

I am deeply troubled by one particular finding in Judge Giles report released last week about the violence last December 3 at South Philadelphia High School. The report indicates that it could not substantiate a highly publicized allegation that Asian students had attacked a disabled African American student the day before.

It should be noted that this explosive allegation was first uttered by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in her very first remarks on the violence at South Philadelphia High School, almost a week after the incident:

"What began as an unwarranted off-campus attack on a disabled African American student, quickly escalated into a retaliatory multi-racial attack on primarily Chinese students at the school the following day.” (School Reform Commission hearing, Dec. 9, 2009)

This allegation heightened racial tension citywide, fueled suspicion, made the rounds of every media outlet, and was widely interpreted as justification for the events of Dec. 3. It should be noted as well, that at least two of the four Asian students who were suspended were suspended because of alleged involvement in Dec. 2.

According to the report:

“There are multiple versions that have been recounted to us through hearsay statements” (p. 4).

Specifically, the report describes four possible scenarios which range from a “crippled/disabled” African American student being jumped and beaten to that same student being part of a group attack on Asian students where (according to another version) one of the Asian students was beaten unconscious after the attack.

When asked at a media press conference, Judge James Giles, author of the report, said he could not determine whether the African American student was a victim or an attacker. The report notes, however, that the African American student was potentially implicated in another separate attack on Asian students.

The report notes that there were witnesses to the incident, including school staff, and recommends in footnotes that “SPHS and other investigating bodies should talk to these witnesses, as well as any City police patrols that were in the area.”

The judge, for the record, did not speak to a single one of the Asian students involved in Dec. 2.

It’s hard to understand why to date, neither the school nor the District has been able to investigate what actually went down here, and yet would still be able to reference this so prominently in a District investigation and in public remarks.

Community advocates and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund have been at South Philadelphia High School for more than a year, documenting repeated harassment and assaults against Asian immigrant students and repeated indifference from school and District officials. So not knowing what exactly transpired on Dec. 2nd has grave implications in understanding the violence that occurred on Dec. 3rd.

The judge’s report shows that, in three out of the four scenarios of Dec. 2, the Asian students are seen as the victims of an attack. One Asian student was allegedly beaten so badly he was “rendered ‘unconscious.’“ So if in fact it was the Asian students who were the victims of an assault, then Dec. 3rd was not a retaliation of Dec. 2nd, but further proof of escalating anti-Asian violence at the school consistent with that school’s history. It undermines the very first opinion stated in the report that:

"The events that occurred on December 3, 2009 were probably triggered by in-school and out of school events that occurred on December 2, 2009 involving two small groups of individuals.”

That is a serious gap in knowledge for an investigator, wouldn’t you think?

Maybe the place to really start is back with the Superintendent. If after three months a judge charged to investigate an incident can’t figure out what happened on Dec. 2, then we know that the Superintendent couldn’t possibly have substantiated her allegation six days after the attacks occurred. And if she didn’t know if her accusation was true, then why did she say it?

The report raises the likelihood that there’s a totally different version of events than the one Dr. Ackerman put out – that it was in fact Asian immigrant kids who were beaten. It would seem imperative to call for a response from the superintendent who uttered the accusation in the first place. After all, one of the concerns of the Giles report is how innuendos and gossip and misunderstanding fueled part of the violence. So how can the superintendent stand by remarks which spread all of that gossip and misunderstanding into the broader community?

Thus far, Dr.Ackerman has taken a convenient “case closed, move forward” approach. It’s convenient because it doesn’t accept her role in fanning the flames and heightening confusion and suspicion through hearsay and rumor rather than encouraging a thorough inquiry into what led up to the attacks.

The high road would be to apologize. Instead, there is a deafening silence.

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