The School District's South Philly High story unravels

Asian American Students at South Philly High Demonstrate

by Helen Gym

It’s hard to imagine that a story that first comes to public light exposing a day-long series of attacks against dozens of Asian immigrant kids can get any worse with time. But indeed, somehow the story about anti-Asian violence at South Philadelphia High School keeps getting more and more outrageous as a relentless pattern of school and District misrepresentation becomes more apparent.
In riveting testimony earlier this week at the School Reform Commission, the grandmother of one of the Asian student victims wept as she described the calculated efforts of school personnel who had scapegoated and unjustly forced out her grandson following a brutal assault upon him December 2.
Her grandson was harassed in school then severely beaten outside of school the day before the December 3 attacks at South Philadelphia High School. The school never investigated the incident yet somehow punished the student, arguing first that the student had attacked a “disabled” African American student thereby triggering the December 3 violence. When that story unraveled he was then cast as a gang member by school officials as part of their new narrative that December 3 was located in gang violence and a broader pandemic of violence throughout the city.
He was one of the students suspended then transferred out of South Philly High as part of the story that December 3 was a “multiracial assault” “reminiscent of street gang conflict.” It was a story that made it to highest levels of the School District and referenced by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and an official District investigation.
Who therefore evades scrutiny? Anyone at the school or District despite the fact that community advocates had documented for more than a year a dozen meetings about on-going anti-Asian violence at Southern and pleas that went unheeded by school and District officials.
As Isaiah Thompson points out here in this week’s cover story at the City Paper:
Though never mentioned by name, this student, who speaks little English, became part of a convenient narrative for a District that wanted to paint these events as being less about the long-standing victimization of a targeted ethnic minority than the result of a feud gone haywire. After all, with the latter explanation, school officials couldn't be blamed for ignoring the powder keg that was about to blow.
In the process, a young boy became the central focus of a relentless campaign by the District who first painted him as a troublemaker then a gang member in order to fit their narrative. Not only did the District fail in its due process (failures in communication, lack of translation) they also accused him of participating in an attack the previous year – even though he was living in another state.
It’s belated gratification to note that District officials are today announcing steps to clear the boy's name. It took a family that wouldn’t accept the abuse, a hard hitting cover in the City Paper, weeks of front page stories at the Inquirer and other media coverage to make happen what three months of meetings could not.
But it’s an indication to what lengths the school and District have gone in order to avoid assumption of responsibility for the violence at South Philadelphia High. Since Dec. 3, the District and school have engaged in a deliberate pattern of behavior to misrepresent what's been happening at South Philadelphia High School and who's been responsible. It’s why Asian community advocates have not been able to “move forward” as Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has declared we ought to.
Consider the testimony of the numerous youth and advocates who testified yesterday about why the District’s actions post-December 3 have been as just as shocking and shameful as what happened on that day.
  • Failing to acknowledge that the attacks reflected anti-Asian, anti-immigrant violence: "The students who were attacked on December 3 were targeted because of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and the accents in their voices. Period. . . Rather than rush to the scene and decry racial violence, express concern for the victims, and commit to combatting bias, the District response has been to distort and minimize - dismiss, deny, and obscure the scale and nature of these attacks." - Ellen Somekawa, Asian Americans United
  • Not listening to students: Tram Nguyen of Victim Witness Services of South Philadelphia said one of the key elements to crisis response is to provide "ventilation and validation" to victims, but testified that there were "repeated obstacles put in place to make it almost impossible for the students to share their stories. When they were allowed to talk they were also told how much their story was hurting other students at the school."
  • Failing to act against staff who behaved inappropriately: Student after student detailed failures of school staff from security personnel who ordered students out of the building, to a principal who escorted students into a dangerous situation to a school nurse who didn't want to call an ambulance. Student Dong Chen said: "We can identify those who ordered us to leave" but students weren't asked about the failures of adults.

You can read more student perspectives here.

While the violence at South Philly made the headlines on Dec. 3, the real story has been in the appalling way the District has handled the situation since. Unfolding before us is how localized violence becomes institutionalized: the silence of the District around racial and ethnic hate, the retaliation against specific students, and the denial of student voices.
When the District remains silent about racism and racially motivated violence, then it is telling us to do the same by default. To move on. To bury the voices of the hurt, the fearful, the silenced, the victimized. The line between the message of “move on” and “get over it” to “get used to it” has become indiscernible.