By Anjana Sundaram
New America Media
Wei Chen describes himself as the “quiet, academic type” when he first came to America in 2006. Upon entering South Philadelphia High School, he barely spoke English and hoped to disappear under the radar, while he adjusted to his new environment.
He was in for a rude awakening.
One month after starting school, two students punched Chen in the neck, while he was reaching for something in his locker.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” Chen says. “I kept asking, ‘Why are they beating me up?’ I came here to find a new, better life, and instead, I get punched.”
Chen shared similar experiences with three other Asian immigrant students who are recipients of this year’s Freedom From Fear Award, which honors their commitment to protect immigrants from abuse.
The winners, Wei Chen, Bach Tong, Duong Nghe Le, and Xu Lin, all became activists after experiencing or witnessing anti-Asian violence in the Philadelphia schools they attended.
“I was surprised that beating students was so rampant in our schools,” says Lin, who came to the United States in 2002.
“The first week of school, I was attacked twice by students from our school and then kids from the neighborhood,” Lin says. “After that, it was just verbal taunts and physical attacks all the time.”
The four activists said the attacks were routine. They had food thrown at them during lunchtime. They were punched and kicked in the hallways and bathrooms and assaulted while walking back from school.
When they reported the attacks to school authorities and police, they say the officials frequently turned a deaf ear to their complaints.
Neither the school district nor the Philadelphia police responded directly to the specific allegations, but assured this reporter that efforts have been made to improve the situation lately. “We’ve made great progress in addressing the problems that persisted in the school, and the climate has made remarkable improvements,” says district spokeswoman Shana Kemp.
“We would always fight back,” Lin says. “I was trying to show that they can’t just do these acts without any consequences. … but there wasn’t anyone helping. We were just on our own.”
In fact, the activists believe the root cause of the problem was the institutional acceptance of violence as a norm. The fact that African American students were usually the perpetrators, they say, was more a byproduct of the environment. The student body at South Philadelphia High School is 70 percent African American and only 18 percent Asian.
“The school failed to ensure safety and eliminate stigmas floating around the school,” Le says, adding that many of these students face an environment where “anger is the only way that they can express their frustration to the situation.”
Tensions came to a boil on Dec. 3, 2009, when 26 Asian students were targeted in a series of attacks at the school by a group of mostly African American students. Seven of the victims had to be rushed to the emergency room to treat their wounds. Although 10 students were suspended, the district and school came under fire for its handling of the situation, which was deemed negligent and irresponsible by the Asian activists.
The district said the Dec. 3 assaults were precipitated by an attack the previous day in which two Asian students beat up a disabled African American student.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman described the attack shortly after, at a Dec. 9 School Reform Commission hearing, like this, “What began as an unwarranted off-campus attack on a disabled African American student quickly escalated into a retaliatory multi-racial attack on primarily Chinese students at the school the following day.”
Chen, who had started a school group called the Chinese American Student Association, says the district was “ridiculous” in downplaying and justifying the violent events. He believed a more inclusive organization was needed for all Asian immigrants to demand a better solution. With Lin’s help, Chen began to call everyone he knew in the past two years to set up a meeting in Chinatown to discuss how to respond to the violence. They decided to boycott South Philadelphia High School, to show they were not satisfied with the false assurances of safety.
Persuading Asian immigrant students to join him wasn’t easy.
“Chinese students and their families don’t want them to stand up and fight with the school system,” Chen says. But he pushed on, calling concerned parents to persuade them that inaction amounted to acceptance. He wrote letters to parents explaining his position and sent a representative to the school to collect homework assignments.
For Duong Le, who participated in the event and drew some of his Vietnamese friends into the boycott, it was a bonding experience.
“It was powerful to see a lot of people talk about the same issue,” Le says. “I felt that I was not alone, and that we could all do something together.”
The boycott lasted for eight days and drew more than 50 Asian student protesters. Eventually, a civil complaint was filed against the district, alleging it had shown “intentional disregard” towards its Asian students.
At the time, the school district disputed the charges, saying it was not discriminatory and had increased security efforts since the attack. “The claim of ‘intentional discrimination’ makes no sense,” the statement said. But in August 2010, the U.S. Justice Department found merit in the claims that Asian immigrant students were being abused at South Philadelphia High. An investigation done at the time to verify what had occurred during the Dec. 3 attack did not provide conclusive evidence of which group instigated the attack.
Changes quickly followed. A new principal was appointed after the former principal, LaGreta Brown, resigned amid reports that her certification had expired.
One hundred twenty-six new security cameras were installed on different floors of the school and extra staff and counselors were brought in to help ease school tensions. As part of the settlement agreement, the district and the school implemented an anti-harassment policy.
“The incident that occurred at South Philadelphia High School in December 2009 was a dark moment for the school district of Philadelphia,” says Shana Kemp, a district spokeswoman. “All of our students deserve a harassment-free learning environment and we strive every day to provide this for them.”
In fact, things have gotten a lot better with the new principal’s visible role in the community, says the Asian activists and school district. “The current principal [Otis Hackney III] is always trying to see how he can reduce the tension,” says Tong, who transferred from South Philadelphia High after the Dec. 3 incident.
Principal Hackney has reached out to both the African American and Asian communities in order to strengthen trust and build expectations for tolerance and acceptance among all ethnic groups in the school.
“The actions of those attackers do not reflect the student body, the majority of whom are African American,” says Hackney, stressing that misconceptions must be overcome in both groups. “There were some African American students who felt it wasn’t fair how they were treated after the attacks.”
Hackney says he made it a point to ensure that Asian students would not be perceived as “untouchable” and treated differently from the rest of the student body.
“The goal was to remove the wall, the idea that one group is more privileged than another,” Hackney says.
Melanie Grimes, senior class president at South Philadelphia High, adds that she felt that the African American students were unfairly portrayed as the villains in the media coverage of the violence occurring at the school.
Grimes says she would escort some of her Asian friends to lunch back in 2009 to make sure they felt comfortable.
“This is not just a one-way street,” says Grimes, 19. “It’s just that no one [in our community] went out to the media and spoke to anyone.” Grimes points out that tensions are dramatically reduced now compared to 2009. She says it is frustrating that so many of the school’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by the media overplaying tensions between African American and Asian students.
But the Asian activists believe there is still work to be done to overcome the inherent distrust between African American and Asian groups. “We have more security than guidance counselors,” Tong says.
“[School officials are] asking them not to fight, not to be criminals, but [at the same time] are treating them like criminals.”
The tensions are exacerbated by language barriers and cultural differences between African American and Asian immigrant students. The activists point out that they were initially reluctant to interact with other students because they were teased for their strong accents and broken English.
Asian immigrants also often got special attention from school counselors and teachers and performed well academically, which contributed to more misunderstanding and tension.
Although shy, Le insists he wants to change this pattern and have diverse friends. “I do want friends from different backgrounds. That is a beautiful thing,” Le says. But he stresses that the school must provide programs to integrate the many different cultures.
The four activists now work together to visit schools and discuss racial tolerance and advise and empower new Asian immigrant students for the high school environment. They say this award validates their prolonged efforts for change.
“I feel that people really responded to me, respected me, and paid attention,” Chen says. “We are building a stronger voice in the community.” ♦
Anjana Sundaram can be reached through newamericamedia.org.