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Bok and South Philly High: What’s different and what hasn’t changed

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

I, like many people, felt my stomach drop when I first heard that two Chinese immigrant youth had been sent to the emergency room after an assault by multiple classmates at Bok High School. It wasn’t just that youth had been attacked, though that was certainly crushing.

It was the language out of the School District just a few days later: Based on an initial review, race was not a factor. Moreover, it was the sense that some were treating this attack as a case of "kids being kids" rather than as the horrific incident that it was.

What the District tried to establish as a basis for the attacks was that Friday was “Freshman Day,” a day of hazing for incoming 9th graders at three high schools including Bok. Except no other freshman were attacked at Bok High School but for these two Chinese immigrant youth. In fact, the School District could not confirm any reported attacks that day against freshman in any of the three schools.

District spokesperson Fernando Gallard also claimed that the student victims were surrounded by classmates who chanted “Freshman! Freshman!” Yet in interviews conducted by advocates for the victims, none of the students mentioned any chanting, unusual considering that the District presented it as a clear and repetitive call. Even adults, who witnessed one of the attacks, could not confirm chanting.

Speaking to a reporter, the principal at Bok said in his 12 years at the school, he had never previously heard of Freshman Day.

Of equal concern was a seeming normalization of this behavior – minimizing the incident as "hazing," an "isolated incident," "stupid," and pointing out that the following day was uneventful, as if violence is a bank account where deficits can be traded off. Frankly, listening to the District’s initial reaction felt like we were revisiting the same troubling territory we had encountered all last year at South Philadelphia High School.

Then we sat down with Bok Principal Larry Melton, his leadership staff, and the director of school police operations. And things were different on the school level. But some troubling issues remained.

Here’s what was different about Bok and South Philadelphia High School:

  • Leadership: Dr. Melton is light years away from LaGreta Brown, the former principal of South Philadelphia High School. He met the student victims at the emergency room – bringing with him staff from the school. In a meeting with community members, he listened to concerns without being defensive or hostile. He then promised us the investigation would remain open and that he would not eliminate any possible factors for the attack, including race.
  • Communication: Dr. Melton made a call to community members the following day and brought together his leadership team as well as the police department and the director of school police operations. He established regular meetings and agreed that more dialogue needed to happen.

But some troubling aspects were still the same:

  • Normalization of violence: “Freshman Day,” “an isolated incident,” “hazing” – this language minimized and downplayed a situation in which two youth were targeted by multiple classmates in the middle of the school day and sent to the emergency room. Moreover, is freshman hazing suddenly OK for the School District? I’m a mother of a ninth grader next year. Why is there no outrage or even mention about hazing from District/SRC leadership? This is a practice banned by colleges and universities across the country. Yet at last week’s SRC meeting, not a word of mention about the Bok attacks, hazing, or concern about continued bias incidents in the school system. And so the system rumbles on.
  • Suspension-oriented solutions and lack of school wide dialogue: According to Bok officials, there were at least ten student assailants as well as a larger group of watchers. The school says it has IDed one student assailant and will recommend harsh punishment. But when so many students have either participated in or witnessed such violence, making an example of one student doesn’t adequately address broader issues at hand. Clearly, a dialogue at the school needs to happen among both students and staff.
  • Language access/needs of immigrant communities: According to the principal, Bok High School has gone from 3 percent to 17 percent Asian in five years. That’s a huge leap in population, which should demand additional training and resources for the school’s leadership team and staff. Teaching staff how to get instant translation, how to strategically deploy bilingual counseling assistants, how to communicate with family and students at the school – these are the basics the District should provide to every school with significant immigrant populations.
  • Anti-Asian bias: Anti-Asian bias is real, and it’s not just a problem among the youth. The U.S. Dept. of Justice didn’t issue a finding of merit because some kids got into a fight and couldn’t get along. They came in because the School District had failed to acknowledge and address racial bias against Asian youth – to the point that it may have violated their constitutional rights. This also is way beyond bullying. The cases we are documenting involve large groups of youth attacking one or two Asian immigrant victims who are apparently targeted because of their race. When the District minimizes or distracts from the manner of the attacks, then it becomes part of the problem.

While it’s true the District recently made a pledge to focus on the 46 most violent schools, it feels like we’ve had a plethora of announcements and promises of plans to come. What we’re short on is the District proving it has changed course when crises do occur.

The District’s response to Bok High School should be the example of how much it has learned from the past year. But so far those lessons don’t appear to have sunk in.

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