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S. Philly High agreement could have districtwide impact

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

The impact of the legal settlement mandating that the School District take steps to counter anti-Asian violence at South Philadelphia High School will be felt in other schools across the city, according to officials, advocates and others involved in hammering out the agreement.

Although not required to, the District is being strongly encouraged to adopt policies and practices in all schools that are designed to prevent ethnic harassment and bullying, not just react to it.

In a written statement, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said it will.

“We recognize that there are opportunities for improved cross-culture and race relations among our youth throughout the city and we are taking steps within the school system to address this issue,” Ackerman said. “We will continue to develop ways to prevent and address student-on-student harassment at South Philadelphia High School and throughout the District.”

She told the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that the District understands that “maintaining a school environment free of bullying and harassment requires constant vigilance and continuous effort.”

On December 15, the District reached a legal agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the PHRC to implement a number of steps at South Philadelphia, which will be monitored through June, 2013. The advocates had hoped for a broader agreement that requires action districtwide – according to several who were involved in the negotiations – but were unable to get one.

The settlement with the Department of Justice devotes 15 pages to measures the school must take to prevent harassment. These include:

  • twice-a-year training for all staff in South Philadelphia in cultural competency and diversity awareness and annual training in the new anti-harassment policy, which was adopted in September,
  • translation services for parents and students, and written explanations in multiple languages of the anti-harassment policy to be distributed by the end of this month,
  • prompt response to allegations of student-on-student harassment, while maintaining detailed records of investigations,
  • annual compliance reports, and
  • student training in cultural understanding and bullying prevention.

“This isn’t an issue limited to South Philadelphia,” said Cecilia Chen, staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which brought the complaint. “Our hope is that [the settlement] will be a wakeup call [and that the District] will take a proactive approach and not just create programs in response to severe harassment.

“In the name of safety and the rights of all students, I hope they adopt these policies at all schools throughout the District.”

PHRC and DOJ found that the District showed “deliberate indifference” to conditions and complaints by the Asian community in South Philadelphia that allowed the situation to fester and resulted in a day of mayhem and violence on December 3, 2009 in which 30 Asian students were attacked by a group of mostly African Americans both inside and outside the school.

The students and their advocates had complained for two years about harassment of Asian students and new immigrants, describing scenes in which adults in the building ignored or even abetted incidents.

While the District denied the finding of “indifference,” it nevertheless agreed to the settlement, which avoided what could have been protracted litigation. Ackerman initially denied the Dec. 3 incident was racial in nature, and stood for months by a principal who could not handle the situation and was later shown to have lacked the proper certifications. Ackerman also declined to meet with the Asian students for more than a week as they boycotted classes in fear for their safety.

In the wake of the legal settlement, Ackerman has talked about lessons learned and has highlighted steps the District has already taken, including the adoption of a systemwide anti-harassment policy in September.

“I’ve been assured by the [District’s] chief counsel, and the superintendent said the same thing, that this is already being looked at as a systemwide model, that the policy and books have been rewritten and distributed to every school and administration,” said PHRC chairman Stephen Glassman.

United States Attorney Zane David Memeger, in announcing the settlement, also said that he hoped the investigation and agreement “represent the start of a corrective action plan that eventually will eliminate student-on-student harassment in all Philadelphia public schools.”

Another citywide ramification of the incident is that both the DOJ and PHRC, as well as advocates for other ethnic minorities in the city, are on high alert for the first signs of bullying and harassment.

As part of the settlement, the District is working with consultant Pedro Noguera, who has already been working at South Philadelphia.

“We have to do two things,” Noguera said. “Help the District develop an effective way to respond quickly to issues relating to racial violence and harassment; but the second point is that it also needs to be recognized that you can’t disconnect these efforts from broader issues to improve schools systemically. Schools where kids are not learning are where there are behavior problems. We have to address that concern. Otherwise, we will not get anywhere.”

Both Noguera and Glassman said that they are convinced that the District leadership has the “will” to take the issue seriously across the city. But Glassman worries that the coming budget crisis – it is facing a budget shortfall next year estimated at between $230 and $500 million – will put staff and student training on the chopping block.

“We don’t know how large the budget cuts will be, but one would hope that they don’t delay this,” he said. “Training everyone in the building, the coaches and counselors and cafeteria workers and teachers and security, is a valuable expenditure to avoid problems. It is far more expensive to have this sort of situation erupt as opposed to proactively avoiding those problems in the future.”

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