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No time to waste

School district officials must act more aggressively to reduce tension and ensure safety at South Philadelphia High School, which has been rocked by racial attacks on Asian students.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was slow to publicly respond to the first major crisis in her administration. Now, she must work harder to reassure anxious students and parents that racist violence won't be tolerated.

In heart-wrenching testimony Wednesday before the School Reform Commission, Asian students painted an ugly picture of hostility against them by African American students that has been rampant for some time.

Even more troubling, they said the problem extended beyond fellow students to school staff, who allegedly not only turned a blind eye to the verbal and physical abuse by black students, but even encouraged the assaults and hurled racial slurs.

In at least five separate attacks last week, inside the school and on nearby streets, 30 students were assaulted, and at least seven landed in the hospital. The student body — 70 percent black and 18 percent Asian — has a serious race problem.

Afraid for their safety, about 50 Asian students boycotted school this week, missing out on instruction time to send a strong message to the district. Given the district's tardiness, they say they are also working on their own solutions.

Meanwhile, the district will announce a new safety plan today that calls for additional security officers, counselors, and translators at the school to facilitate easier reporting by students and peer mediation. The district is also wisely looking beyond South Philadelphia High by appointing a district-wide racial and cultural task force, and implementing a U.S. Justice Department program to help students deal with racial and ethnic divisiveness.

Those are welcome moves, which should not have been delayed by Ackerman's letting days pass before deciding to react.

By not publicly addressing the racial violence for nearly a week, she gave the impression that it was not a priority. By not visiting the school for nearly a week, she gave the impression that it was not a priority.

Such a tepid response does little to reassure wary students that it will be safe to return to school next week. Ackerman should be meeting with everyone, from the janitors to the principal, to make sure they understand that the environment of hostility at South Philadelphia High must change.

In her remarks at Wednesday's SRC meeting, Ackerman said the violence was a reflection of the racism that exists in the larger community as well. Absolutely, which is why administrators must be sensitive to the plight of all of the minority groups in their schools that look to them for protection.