This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
As the school year approached, I got my children ready in the annual tradition – buying uniforms and supplies, planning lunch meals, and rushing through the waning days of summer. I also helped get another set of students ready for school but in a far different way.
SASA (South Phila. High Asian Student Advocates) – which includes the core organizations and individuals who have been actively working with students and families at the school around anti-Asian/anti-immigrant harassment – conducted a three-hour training for nearly 40 incoming students to South Philadelphia High School.
It was a deeply moving event, with students and adults sharing their experiences of harassment, intimidation, and even violence. It was a safe place, where students could express their fears and frustrations and ask questions. And it was an empowering space – co-led by current and former students who had challenged the District to fulfill its responsibility to stop the abuse of Asian immigrant youth.
It was a sobering process. We reviewed a list of racial slurs so new immigrant students would recognize them if they heard them. Students witnessed a role-play in the school cafeteria about harassment acted out by student organizers – observers were then asked how they would respond if they were the victims or bystanders. We went through steps about what to do if they were harassed or hurt at school. Students went home with translated safety pamphlets.
And we went home with our prayers for a better school year.
It’s been almost two years since 20 immigrant youth called together Asian American community leaders and demanded our attention to the violence at South Philadelphia High School. I remember former student Wei Chen and his classmates, and sitting in stunned silence as we listened to what was happening at their school.
Over the past two years we’ve documented countless acts of relentless violence and harassment and, even worse, indifference, neglect, and later hostility and defensiveness from school and District officials. We’ve seen our children beaten and afraid; at least one student we worked with dropped out because of the violence. We’ve worked with fearful and angry parents who have been intimidated and silenced by a school administration that has sought to deny their stories.
It was all the more reason why the eight-day boycott last December by dozens of immigrant youth marked a watershed moment. Following a day-long assault on dozens of Asian youth and unimaginable neglect by school and District officials, these students stood up and said, “No more.” And then they went out and organized, not only for themselves but also in coalition with youth of all races citywide to stop school violence and demand accountability from their school district.
This past summer has brought renewed hope to the struggle for racial justice at South Philadelphia High School. News reports indicate the U.S. Dept. of Justice has issued a “finding of merit” in a civil rights complaint filed by our lawyers at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
This finding is a major victory for students and community members, whose stories and experiences the District simply refused to hear. It’s also a victory for immigrant students across the city. The DOJ’s charge for the School District of Philadelphia to fix its problems is an important opportunity to substantively address anti-Asian/anti-immigrant harassment in our schools and ensure lasting and real change for every student across the District, no matter their race. We want to build schools in which different races and cultures are not merely “tolerated” but thrive in an environment that reflects principles of educational justice for all.
This year, South Philly High has a new principal who seems genuinely committed to the mission to change and improve the climate and conditions for every student at the school. Check out Principal Otis Hackney’s quotes in this profile of one of South Philly’s outstanding student organizers, Duong Ly. Both are shining examples of South Philly’s potential future.
But we’re also sober about the challenges ahead.
It’s unfortunate that with the threat of federal action looming, the District still talks of “closure” rather than of substantive solutions. They confuse announcements with achievement and proclaim zero tolerance for violence at a school where families and community members have endured a history of violence. A pastiche of programs which contain the word Asian is another typical response. We don’t need to be pandered to. What we need is significant dialogue with the District and a demonstrated commitment to addressing the root causes of racial bias throughout the school.
A new school year does begin at South Philadelphia High School and for young immigrant students all across the city. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the young people at South Philadelphia High School who stood up to injustice and ignorance, it’s that the District must engage with communities about addressing school violence and racial bias.
As Duong Ly wrote in his op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“Getting a good education in a safe school should be a right, not a privilege. We never thought we would have to fight for that right, but we are glad we did.”