How Do We Solve a Problem Like South Philadelphia High?

by Latoya Peterson

When you see a headline like “30 Asian Students Attacked,” one would think there would be massive rage.  An outcry about violence in schools.  A discussion of why our kids aren’t safe.  But in the wake of the attacks and continuing coverage by outlets like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Asian-American blogosphere, the silence surrounding this issue confirms exactly who is considered media worthy in our society and who is not.  The kids being attacked at South Philly High School are part of our community – but where is the concern?  Where is the outcry from mainstream media? Where is the national conversation on…well, I’d take anything at this point.  Race, violence in schools, unsympathetic administrators, class, inter-community tensions, the right to an education in a safe environment – there are thousands of issues to be explored here, and we haven’t heard a peep from most mainstream media outlets.

I’ve been following the news with quite a bit of interest.  This kind of violence doesn’t pop up out of no where - it has to be nurtured.

Chaofei Zheng hiked up his shirt to reveal an angry bruise about four inches long on his right side. He pointed to a matching yellow and purple mark above his left eyebrow.

“I’m scared to go to school,” Zheng, 19, a freshman at South Philadelphia High, said through a translator today.

Zheng is one of several – community organizers say 30 or more – students who were attacked at the school on Thursday, targeted, they say, because they’re Asian.

Racial violence at the school is not new, but students and activists say this week’s attacks are emblematic of a problem that’s not going away.

“There’s a corrosive culture that’s hurting all the kids at the school,” said Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, who said the district must apologize and “admit that there’s a serious problem at South Philly High School.”

District officials acknowledge the school has problems and racial tensions but say that before the incident, violence was down by 55 percent this school year. Inroads have been made, they say.

Looking at some of the source articles, a clear narrative starts to emerge.  And while it is difficult to opine on a situation that is still unfolding, there are some dominant ideas emerging that need to be scrutinized before any progress can occur.

Racial Tensions Between Groups As Expressions of Power

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the racial make up of the school is composed primarily of black students – 70% of the population is identified as black.  A significant minority group is Asian, 18% of the student population, many of whom are recent immigrants or the children of recent immigrants.  The remaining students at the school are white and Latino (with 6% and 5% of the population respectively.)  No white or Latino students appear to have been interviewed.  Student testimony reveals how racial retaliation begins – a slight on one member of a group damns the whole.  So in this case, the students explain:

Wei Chen, who formed the South Philadelphia Chinese-American Student Association last year after a spate of attacks, saw the violence erupt on Thursday, but was not injured. Chen, 18, a senior, said the attackers had no specific problem with their victims.

“They didn’t know each other,” said Chen. “They just see the Asian face, and they punch it.”

Kelly Muth, a Cambodian student, said she witnessed one of the Thursday attacks. And she thinks she knows what triggered the violence.

“Last week, a group of Vietnamese students jumped a black guy, so they came back for revenge,” Muth said. “But they targeted anybody, anybody Asian.”

Other articles point to a more familiar dynamic – a native-born group exploiting a more vulnerable immigrant group:

Chen said there’s been some progress at the school this year – more community meetings, weekly sessions with administrators where students point out possible problems. Classes for those students learning English used to be on a separate floor, the immigrants kept away from the native English speakers, Chen said.

But new principal LaGreta Brown ended that practice, he said. Brown was not available for comment.

Other articles about community meetings added that additional, outside tensions between the black community and the Asian community in South Philadelphia could also be exacerbating the issues at school.  Minority groups can certainly hold prejudice and bias toward one another, and engage in racist actions they have learned are acceptable.  However, more may be at play here – the school’s demographic information shows a school that was much more racially balanced eight years ago, one that is plagued with withdrawals, and one that leaves the most vulnerable kids – the ones who do not have parents who can afford to send them to a better school, or who are too intimidated to navigate a bureaucracy – to fend for themselves.

The Role of Class

I looked up the website for the school, to try to find more information on the backgrounds of the students.  The school website has not updated student data since 2006; yet it confirmed a hunch I had:

The percentage of students from low-income families in 2005 – 2006 is operationally defined as the percentage of students elligible for free or reduced lunch in the Federal School Lunch Program.

Students from Low-Income Families (%): 71.8%          Citywide: 72.8%

Class is playing as large a role as race in why this story is under reported. I am relying a bit on personal experience here, but low income students, of any race, are less likely to garner as much sympathy as their wealthier counterparts. When violence erupts in schools in areas that are in areas plagued by violence, it’s reported as if it was just another day.  That’s why situations like Columbine rock headlines – the ten year anniversary of the tragic public school shooting recently passed and the news paused to remember.  Columbine was a tragedy – but one that resonated because it impacted the “safe,” predominantly white community and shattered the sense of peace.  Those of us who grew up in other types neighborhoods know that there is no peace to be had – the violence we witnessed didn’t come all at once, but consistently ebbs and flows.  And there is no outcry.  It is considered normal for poorer students and minority students to put up with some level of violence while pursuing an education. It’s just the way it is.  And the rest of the world is not moved by our plight.

I was very lucky.  None of the schools I attended, in various areas, had metal detectors or serious problems with violence.  (Or, if they had, those problems were mostly resolved by the time I enrolled.)  But my friends and family who lived in different areas were not so lucky.  And when violence happened, at their schools, when there’s a drive by near their school building or when kids are being shot in class, it wasn’t considered unusual.  The only outrage came from the community, while most people checked out the article in the Metro section, shook their heads, and turned the page.

How Administrators Perpetuate Climates of Racism and Violence in Schools

When the first response out of a principal’s mouth after a horrific attack is about violence actually dropping this year, there may be some problems with grasping the reality of the situation between the walls of the school. And when you have to revise that initial statement, we really have to wonder how engaged the administration is in ending the violence:

Officials said last night that they erred last week in saying violence was down at the school. A district spokesman said that through the end of November, assaults were up by 32 percent, to 37 this year, and overall violence was up by 5 percent, with 43 total attacks this year.

Attacks on Asian students were down by 38 percent – there were five this year through the end of November, and eight last year, September through November. These numbers don’t include last week’s violence.

30 kids don’t catch beat downs at school without the school environment signaling in some way that this is acceptable behavior. And sure enough, the signs were there:

Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United, said the attacks against Asian students were disturbing, but more so was the district’s reaction, which she characterized as slow and defensive. Almost a week later, some students involved have still not been interviewed, Somekawa said. [...]

Somekawa described students at the school being mocked by staff: ” ‘Where are you from? Hey, Chinese. Yo, Dragon Ball. Are you Bruce Lee? Speak English,’ ” quoting what students had told her.

Troung, the South Philadelphia student, recited a litany of problems with school staff. She singled out the security officers, who she claimed forced Asian students to follow them into a lunchroom where they were attacked and who directed the frightened students to leave school after they were beaten.

Yan Zheng, another student, said that when students were fighting in the lunch room last Thursday, “the lunch lady did not do anything to stop them, and went around cheering happily. . . . The staff shouldn’t just stand there and watch and say, ‘Stopping fights is not my job.’ ”

Duong Thang Ly said the school’s security officers “are the big problem,” saying they looked the other way when a group of African American students interrupted a lunch line and heckled a group of Asian students. They ignored groups of students as they roamed during class time, Ly said.

Many of the solutions proposed showed an astounding lack of ideas on how to solve this problem:

The Philadelphia School District has been criticized for its response, which some have characterized as slow and defensive, but officials on Friday announced a host of fixes – more police officers, more cameras, diversity training, a federal program to deal with racial tensions, an outside diversity committee, and an in-school think tank.

If the kids don’t trust the security officers now, what makes school officials think that adding more will help, especially when they have already discussed how students are reluctant to name people for fear of retribution?  How do cameras help anything but prosecution?  Carmen often explains why diversity training doesn’t work – it often is focused on protecting a company or organization by teaching people how to hide their racism, not by forcing people to challenge their own racist beliefs.  Worse still are the multicultural celebrations, that think by highlighting a groups achievements or individual culture, they can somehow stop racist attacks.  But neither of those methods work because they do not examine the root issues.  Outside committees can provide perspective, but often fail because they are too far from the community to really understand the issue, and often lack the authority to implement their recommendations, and in-school think tanks are often rife with the politics that plague the school.

Meanwhile, kids are still being targeted.

How Framing Influences Perception

Here’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed.  The kids being interviewed seem to express the same ideas over and over – while this is being promoted as a race war, the reality is a lot more complicated.

Wei Chen, a student activist who formed a Chinese-American student group after attacks that happened last year said:

Chen, 18, who stayed home from school today, stressed that it’s a small number of students making things unsafe for everyone. “I have many African American friends; they teach me to say hello,” he said, displaying an elaborate series of hand clasps and slaps, street language that makes him cool. “Every group has good students and bad students.”

And while details about the attacks still seem a bit hazy, it may be that some Asian students participated in the attacks (emphasis mine):

The meeting was a dramatic crescendo in a situation that began Dec. 2, school officials said, when a disabled African American student was beaten up by two Asian students outside school.

The next day, large groups of African American and Asian students attacked at least 30 Asian students, seven of whom required treatment at a hospital. Some of the attackers went from room to room, looking for students to target. District officials said the Thursday attacks were retaliatory, but Helen Gym, a board member of Asian American United, challenged that.

“By linking the two incidents, which involved two absolutely different sets of youth, the district seems to imply that there’s an undercurrent of justification for what happened on Thursday,” Gym said.

Officials announced last night that an outside investigator would probe what happened, beginning next week.

Six African American students and four Asian students have been suspended, and police and School District investigations are ongoing.

What the hell is that about?  It appears this story is further complicated by an insider/outsider dynamic which can be traced along racial lines, but isn’t solely the cause.

Meanwhile, other students take pains to point out that while the racial dynamics make the analysis swing in an obvious direction, the problem runs deeper than that:

It’s not just Asian students who are suffering, Truong said.

“Most of the students at South Philadelphia High School – Asian, African American, Latino and white – are just like us. They are trying to get an education in a school where they do not feel safe or respected,” said Truong.

However, it is heartening to see that despite the lackluster efforts by adults to solve the problem, the students at South Philly High School want to step up where the administation has failed:

At one point, a multiracial contingent of South Philadelphia High students asked the Asian students to come back to school.

Senior student Duong-Thang Ly thanked the students, then added: “We hope to return to school soon, but we want to the school to be safe for all of us.”

So what can be done at South Philadelphia High School?

There are no easy answers to these types of problems, particularly ones that have been going on as long as this one appears to be.  Violence will not be solved overnight. And, while we talk about issues of race and culture often here, anything I say from this point on is armchair quarterbacking – the majority of us aren’t in Philadelphia, South Philadelphia High is not our community school, and ultimately, we can’t know how the situation is actually playing out based on a handful of news articles.  But in the off chance some one is reading who can affect change at the school, I don’t want to leave them hanging.  So here’s my very general ideas for how to help stop the violence and soothe some of the inter-group issues.  Remember, this is generic advice – it will need to be adapted to the individual needs of the school before it is put in play.

Short Term Solutions – Stop Immediate Violence, Allow Kids to Attend School Safely

1.  Extensively poll the students, in confidence.  You want to make an outside task force? Set them on this task – interview every student at South Philly High School (including those who are being suspended for violent acts) about the over all school environment, race, violence, who they trust, and why.  There are 1200 or so students – go class by class, pulling every kid out one by one.  That way, no one is singled out as being the person who said anything – everyone is participating.  If you can’t do in-person discussions (which, considering the crisis level at the school, shouldn’t be too much to ask) then do written surveys in multiple languages, and have people on staff who can read and translate without sending them off anywhere else.  You want to talk about a month to cull the data, and a month to analyze it.  These kids don’t have a year or two years to waste while people are writing reports – they need relief now.

2. One of the key narratives is that immigrant students are being attacked.  These are the kids who are the most vulnerable, yet they have revealed school officials cannot be trusted with listening to their concerns.  While all this is being resolved, reinstate the policy that Chen referred to of pulling the students out of regular rotation with the rest of the student body.  ESL students do learn better if they are exposed to people who speak English as a first language, but these effects are negligible if the students are too fearful to interact.  This should be done immediately, while the data is being gathered.  Pull the kids to their own floor again, provide them with a separate lunch period or allow them to take lunch in the classrooms where they are most comfortable.  Reroute the most sympathetic security officers to provide back up in the ESL wing/floor and to work with the ESL teachers to identify students who are prone to being bullied.  Do not bring police into a school environment.  That is generally a toxic influence, especially when so many youth of color have learned (through words or actions) not to trust the police.  If you want to post a patrol outside of the building, fine.  But many on the police force are not trained to deal with adolescents, outside of programs like D.A.R.E. or other outreach initiatives.  Officers are there to provide policing and force, and that is not an element you want to introduce to the school.  Kids don’t learn on lockdown.  Get more security officers, particularly ones who worked with schools or with rehabilitative juvenile justice programs.

3. I’ll bet a major problem in this school revolves around staff, be it staff turnover or staff shortages.  One teacher explains she left because of all the attacks on foreign-born students she felt helpless to stop.  Get more staff in there, both teachers, teaching assistants, or security.  More sets of (engaged) eyes will help to stem the flow of violence.   If this is not feasible or too expensive, ask organizations like Teach for America or community organizations and leaders to lend some volunteers to the school to be witnesses.  You do not want people to engage with violent students (that what security is for) but you do want to make it so that there are enough adults around so that kids think twice about attacking people.

4.  Pinpoint violent offenders and remove them from the flow of students. According to the school’s own data, in 2005 some 150 students were suspended more than three times over the course of the school year. What are these kids doing to get suspended so often? Are they being violent toward other students? If so, remove them from general matriculation and put them in an In School Suspension program.  Don’t just send them home – give them their work and sequester them somewhere else, so that other students can learn in peace.  Also, have teachers keep an eye out for violent bullies, and recommend those kids spend a day or two in ISS.  I stress this is a temporary solution – most of the kids you meet in ISS will need more help than a school system can give, and may need counseling, removal from abusive home environments, special needs classes for undiagnosed learning issues – it could be any cause. However, the short term goal is getting kids back into school and feeling safe, and a part of that will be removing the admittedly small number of students who are masterminding the problems.

Long Term Solutions – Promote a Safe and Harmonious School Environment for All Students

1. There can be no racial harmony without trust.  However, many of these kids don’t trust each other, or the outside school environment.  This type of reform takes years, but I would suggest starting with each incoming class of freshman and finding time in home room or something equivalent to talk and journal about issues that are impacting them. They need to know that school is a space for them to reflect and that school officials will have their best interests at heart.  Part of this is by establishing connections with more of the students.

2. We want to encourage cross-cultural friendships. A lot of the kids that spoke out were not the ones being abused.  And many of the student leaders referenced having friends of different groups.  This should be encouraged.  Tap the more outgoing kids to become student leaders, and allow them to lead discussion groups and influence the administration on how best to promote kindness and understanding. Friendship is more powerful than rhetoric.

3.  Much of these tensions probably result from community issues spilling into the space of the school.  So a lot of community healing may be in order.  Again, not being based in Philly, I’m not sure how things have changed or what is causing the outrage and lack of empathy, but looking at some of those issues may help kids to engage with school a bit better.

4. Advocate for more resources at the school.  Teachers can only do so much.  Guidance counselors can only do so much.  To succeed and flourish, a school must be able to meet the needs of most students at the school. Outside of safety, what else is happening? Are the students disengaging with the curriculum? Is there a clear path to college, or a trade, or does an adult life feel unattainable for most students? Use the data gathered by the task force to figure out what your students need, and find a way to provide it.

Source Articles:

Allegations of racial tensions at South Philadelphia High
Asian students vow to continue school boycott
Asian students describe violence at South Philadelphia High
100 rally to support S. Phila. High’s Asian students
Principal had a rocky end at old job
Asians say officials, not kids, are the problem at South Philly high