South Philly High 6 Months Later: What Still Needs Work

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by Helen Gym

In the past few weeks, the School District of Philadelphia has made a heavy media push to recast the story at South Philadelphia High School. From news articles to columns to letters toeditorial board briefings, the District is pushing the story that the events of Dec. 3 are long past and, in their typical refrain, it’s time to move on.

The latest push has been to use statistics. According to Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer story, the District claims that last school year there were 92 assaults total; this year 44. From Jan.-May, there were 70 assaults reported; this year only 15.

It seems pretty astounding to claim that this school year has been a better and safer one than last year. Anyone who’s been watching the story knows that the District’s numbers have constantly shifted. For example, the District’s own website shows that Southern had well over 100 assaults last school year, not 92.

In the days following the Dec. 3 attacks the District told media outlets that minor skirmishes had happened off campus and that violence was down at the school. They later corrected that statement to say that violence at the school had spiked 32% from September through November. The Dec. 3 violence alone – in which at least 26 Asian students were beaten and 13 sent to the hospital – would account for more than half the incidents the District counts for the year – a ratio, frankly, that seems sketchy at best.

In the months since Dec. 3, the District has waged a deliberate campaign to misrepresent the situation at South Philadelphia High School – from a $100,000 report that absolved school officials of any missteps to unsubstantiated allegations about gangs to retaliation against student victims to hurtful implications that student victims aren't the "real face" of South Philadelphia High.

In addition, both the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and local advocacy groups have documented almost a dozen assaults and incidents of harassment against Asian immigrant students at the schoo since December 3. Students have filed complaints with both the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission about school staff ripping up reports and having students rewrite reports they claim have been “lost.” When incidents do occur, we’ve found both the school and District lack new policies and procedures on effectively investigating and addressing incidents. Furthermore, they have repeatedly failed to provide appropriate language access and translation for students and families.

Frankly I don't see how the District claims credibility on this issue given a consistent pattern of misrepresentation and suppression of both student and parent voices at the school. Instead of worrying about the actual safety of students at the school, they appear to be more concerned with avoiding litigation and evading responsibility for what was clearly a deteriorating situation at the school before Dec. 3 and a problematic situation since.

There is no doubt that in the last few weeks, with the departure of former principal LaGreta Brown, things have calmed down considerably at Southern. Within a week of Brown's departure, we were sitting down with Interim Principal Ozzie Wright, who was taking notes on concerns; he has also met with diverse groups of students. It's a marked difference to be sure. But Mr. Wright's been in charge exactly three weeks, and school’s out in two.

We want to make it clear that we very much look forward to the arrival of new SPHS principal Otis Hackney, who appears to have a strong reputation and has set out an open and cooperative approach toward his new assignment. But we have also been here before. After all, Mr. Hackney will be the fifth principal in six years for this troubled school.

Here’s what hasn’t happened:

  • Any effort to acknowledge that the District must address and handle bias and harassment at the school.
    Instead, Supt. Arlene Ackerman has continued to heighten racial tension and confusion by defending a disgraced LaGreta Brown (whom she described as a victim) and casting blame on Asian youth, claiming in this article last month that she knew of an incident (without any details mind you) where Asian students attacked African American students two years ago.
  • Lack of clear written protocol to address incidents of bias and harassment.
    What we’ve found is that the District lacks options. They only know two things – suspend or ignore. And we’ve seen that in full force at Southern, where students have been suspended without any investigation or, in other cases, told to hug when they’ve had food thrown at them or racial slurs cast in their face. When new students arrive, there is no orientation process for them or their families; students and the school community have not had any new policies shared with them post-Dec. 3.
  • Significant dialogue and training to address race and race relations.
    A set of recommendations by the U.S. Dept. of Justice has been largely ignored since being published in February. To date, there has been two half-day professional development  sessions for staff that focused specifically on diversity and multiracial issues. A small subset of students participated in two half-day dialogue sessions last December. An afterschool club is run by the graciousness of civic leaders like Sonny Hill and City Councilman James Kenney, but it’s unclear how it’s being sustained and infused throughout the school and school day. Dialogue and healing must occur between and among students, staff and the broader school community.
  • Compliance with language access mandates.
    Flagrant violations abound for students and families who don’t speak English. Interpretation is inconsistent and frequently inaccurate. Parents who don’t speak English have been turned away by the school.
  • Follow through and dialogue with students and families.
    This is where humanity steps in. When students have informed the school and District of harassment and assault, they never hear back from the school how the incident is resolved, whether there’s been an investigation, and what next steps the school is planning to take to address their concerns.

Community members have asked for more things like:

  • strengthened and improved policies and approaches to bias-based violence (New York City, for example, has done work in this area);
  • an independent investigator to research and investigate incidents of bias violence;
  • an independent monitor for the District around these issues;
  • trainings in how to help staff get interpreters and translators on the spot;
  • a year-round orientation program; and
  • staff training and student dialogue around anti-harassment and anti-bias violence.

It’s hard for many people to understand why there are such widely divergent viewpoints about South Philadelphia High School – why for some students it’s a functioning school that fulfills their needs, and why for others, it’s a place where they are routinely harassed with little response from school officials. I don’t think either story discounts the other. In fact, it’s strong confirmation that the situation at Southern is a targeted one.

For students and youth who are harassed, it’s clear they are marginalized in so many different ways – from language access violations that preclude their and their families’ ability to communicate and interact with the school to a dismissive, "get over it" approach from some school and District officials. It’s not unlike what we’ve seen when any marginalized group raises its concerns.

What we seek from both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is not to resolve this problem among children and families. The problem of not only school violence in general, but targeted racial and ethnic harassment, requires institutional acknowledgment of the existence of a problem as well as institutional response to the remedy. The School District of Philadelphia and South Philadelphia High School bear the responsibility to ensure a promise that every child – no matter their race, ethnicity, or how well they speak English – deserves the opportunity to attend a safe school.

Until we do that, $700,000 in security cameras and a PR blitz – while ignoring the nature of the issue and any opportunity to dialogue and address the situation proactively – won’t do enough to solve the deeply-rooted problems at South Philadelphia High School.

Helen Gym is a board member of Asian Americans United which has been working on anti-Asian/anti-immigrant bias at South Philadelphia High School since October 2008. For more information go to Asian Americans United's website at www.aaunited.org or contact her at aau@aaunited.org.