School Climate & Safety

Attacks on Asian Students in Phila. Spur Complaint

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 21, 2010 3 min read
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An advocacy group for Asian-Americans has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice charging that the Philadelphia school district and South Philadelphia High School have shown “intentional disregard” for the welfare of Asian students at the high school.

The complaint, filed on Jan. 19 with the civil rights division of the Justice Department, alleges that Asian students’ civil rights under the U.S. Constitution were violated because “they suffered severe and pervasive peer-on-peer harassment based on their race and national origin” at the school, and both school and school district officials showed “deliberate indifference” to the situation.

“We’ve seen a long history of community advocates trying to get the school and district to address the problem,” said Cecilia Chen, a staff lawyer for the Philadelphia-based Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the complaint.

The 161,000-student school system said in a statement in response to the complaint that it has taken numerous steps to address racial tension and violence in the schools, including asking a retired U.S. District Court judge to conduct an investigation into the situation at South Philadelphia High School.

The district’s office of school safety, the statement said, has added four school police officers for a total of 15 officers at the school; installed a state-of-the-art surveillance technology system including comprehensive coverage by new security cameras at vital locations within the building; worked with the Philadelphia police department to extend the “safe corridors” around the school; and brought in a conflict-resolution program of the U.S. Department of Justice’s community-relations service.

“The claim of ‘intentional discrimination’ makes no sense,” the district statement says. “Asserting that the district would have ‘intentional disregard’ for the welfare of its students is as outrageous as it is hurtful to so many professionals, students, and others who have been devoted to addressing these issues in a meaningful manner.”

‘Hostile Climate’

The complaint describes attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School on Dec. 3 that were widely publicized in local news reports. It says 13 Asian students were sent to the hospital and received treatment for injuries resulting from the attacks. The complaint alleges that throughout the day, school officials learned of harassment against Asian students by African-American students, but did not intervene effectively.

Ms. Chen said none of the students was held overnight in the hospital, and the most serious injury was a broken nose. South Philadelphia High School’s enrollment is predominantly African-American, she said, with large minorities of Vietnamese and Chinese and a small group of Cambodians as well. All of the students who were attacked were English-language learners, she said.

After the attacks, some 60 Asian students boycotted attendance at South Philadelphia High School for eight days, saying they didn’t feel safe going to school, according to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The complaint says that more than a year before the incidents on Dec. 3, the advocacy group had reported cases of harassment against Asian students to school district and South Philadelphia High School officials. It adds: “School and district officials repeatedly reneged on promises to address the harassment, disregarded incidents of harassment against Asian students reported by advocates, and ignored the increasingly hostile climate toward Asian students at the school.”

The complaint also alleges that the high school and district violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 because they didn’t provide appropriate translation and interpretation for English-language learners who were being harassed. The complaint says school district and high school officials had promised to create a brochure spelling out the school’s safety procedures and reporting protocol that would be translated into the appropriate languages, but they never delivered on that promise. Students were also promised that a Mandarin-speaking security guard would be assigned to the school, but that didn’t happen until after the Dec. 3 attacks, the complaint says.

In addition, English-language learners had reported that letters were regularly sent home to their parents only in English and weren’t translated into the home languages of their families.

Ms. Chen said Justice Department staff members have begun interviewing Asian students who were victims of the attacks on Dec. 3, but had not decided yet whether to conduct an investigation.

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2010 edition of Education Week

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