By Kathy Matheson
The Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Tensions between black and Asian students at a U.S. public high school erupted in a series of assaults over two days, leading to 10 suspensions and several students seeking medical treatment, students and school officials said last Friday.
Wei Chen, president of South Philadelphia High School’s Chinese American Student Association, said at a news conference that two off-campus attacks and a lunchroom attack stem from bullying over cultural differences and the Asian students’ poor English.
“We are outraged,” said Xu Lin of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., who works with immigrant students. “The parents are very, very concerned.”
But school officials say this week’s clashes were an aberration that belies strenuous efforts to improve race relations and cultural awareness.
“What gets lost in all of this is the fact that the school, the community, and the students have worked hard over the past two years to foster that kind of positive learning environment,” said James Golden, the school district’s chief safety executive. “Despite what happened this week, that positive learning environment prevails.”
More than a dozen teens skipped school to share their concerns at the news conference with adult advocates. Asian students said the fights left them feeling unsafe and helpless, in part because they say school security guards often turn a blind eye.
Lin said his efforts to facilitate community meetings and cultural training at the school have been ignored.
The school, with some 1,200 students, is 70 percent black and 18 percent Asian. It serves mostly low-income neighborhoods south of downtown and has been labeled “persistently dangerous” by the state, based on the number of safety incidents reported.
Accounts of the incidents differ.
Golden said a fight broke out on Dec. 2 after school “involving a small group of students,” about a block off-campus. He said a black teenager suffered minor injuries. Asian students say a Vietnamese teen was attacked by more than a dozen teens.
Golden said a minor incident occurred Dec. 3 with no injuries or arrests. But Asian students described a lunchroom brawl in which some of them were punched and kicked.
After school on Dec. 3, a large fight broke out about two blocks off-campus, according to students and officials. Several Asian students sought treatment at a hospital. Ten students — all black or Asian — were given 10-day suspensions after that incident and may be permanently expelled, district spokesman Vincent Thompson said.
Using Lin as a translator, ninth-grader Chaofei Zheng said Dec. 4 that he wants to get an education, make friends, and improve his English. He said there are nice students at the school and he doesn’t understand the reason for the attacks.
“We are very afraid and feel helpless,” said Zheng, who sported a bruise on his eye from the lunchroom brawl. “We don’t know what to do.”
Amina Velazquez, a 17-year-old who is black and Puerto Rican, said the school is being tarnished by a few.
She also said Asian students tend to stay within their own groups, making it hard to get to know them. “We just need to get them out of their shells more often,” she said.
Golden said authorities were investigating. About six police cruisers and twice as many officers on bicycles were posted outside the school on the afternoon of Dec. 4.
Regional superintendent Michael Silverman noted officials have met with school security guards to discuss the need for consistent discipline.
The racial tension “started in the community and came into the school,” Silverman said. “I don’t know how you separate the school from the community.”
On the evening of Dec. 4, Silverman and other district officials and police met with members of the Asian community for two hours in what Silverman called “a very emotional meeting” about the week’s events.
“We never want this to happen again,” Silverman said.
Thompson said the number of violent incidents at the school is down. According to state reports, South Philadelphia reported 371 violent incidents last school year, down from 480 in the 2007–08 school year.
But the school population also declined by about 300 students in that period. ♦
Associated Press Writer JoAnn Loviglio contributed to this report.