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City sets up meeting to mediate school ethnic tensions

Officials of Philadelphia's Human Relations Commission are pulling together a meeting for tomorrow morning to mediate racial and ethnic tensions at South Philadelphia High School that erupted Dec. 3 with attacks on about 30 Asian immigrant students.

Officials of Philadelphia's Human Relations Commission are pulling together a meeting for tomorrow morning to mediate racial and ethnic tensions at South Philadelphia High School that erupted Dec. 3 with attacks on about 30 Asian immigrant students.

Commission chairperson Kay Kyungsun Yu said yesterday that School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and South Philadelphia High School principal LaGreta Brown had committed to attending the meeting.

Yu said the commission was working with Mayor Nutter's Commission on Asian American Affairs to contact and get commitments today from parents and students who were victims of the Dec. 3 attacks.

The meeting is to be held at 9 a.m. tomorrow at the commission's offices in the Curtis Center across from Independence Hall. Yu said the meeting would be private.

"We want to get the superintendent and principal, the students and their parents together and start a dialogue where there is not a lot of attention from outsiders," Yu said.

Ackerman said last night that besides her and Brown, the commission had agreed to let her bring three outside observers to the meeting: retired U.S. District Judge James T. Giles, whom the school district has asked to investigate the Dec. 3 incident; Pedro A. Ramos, the former city managing director, city solicitor, and school board member; and Patricia A. Coulter, president of the Urban League of Philadelphia.

Ackerman said two observers from the Asian community would attend tomorrow's meeting, including Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, the Philadelphia group that worked with the South Philadelphia students.

Gym could not be reached for comment.

Asian Americans United's Web site has announced a meeting for this afternoon to show support for the Asian high school students. The meeting is set for 3 p.m. at Arch Street Methodist Church at Broad and Arch Streets, north of City Hall.

The Human Relations Commission announcement came one day after officials of a national law center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said they would file a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The suit would accuse the Philadelphia School District of failing to address violence against Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School.

"My hope is that we can facilitate a dialogue and avoid any litigation," Yu said.

Although the Dec. 3 incident involved attacks on Asian immigrant students by a group of mostly African American students, Yu said, the situation was more than just a racial conflict and was aggravated by the limited English-speaking skills of some Asian students.

"There are differences in cultural norms and language being a part of this," Yu said. "There is no one particular cause of this issue, but the inability to effectively communicate makes this a very difficult issue."

Ackerman, who said she met Friday with various groups of students at South Philadelphia, agreed: "These problems are long-standing and go beyond the school and into the community."

Ackerman described Friday's meeting as a "real breakthrough" and said she would meet soon with other student groups from South Philadelphia High so "no group believes they have not been heard."

South Philadelphia High School has long reflected the tensions of a larger neighborhood that has dramatically changed from the days when it was best known as Philadelphia's Little Italy.

According to the district's Web site, South Philadelphia High School's student population today is 1,175: 70 percent African American, 5.6 percent white, 18.3 percent Asian, and 5.2 percent Latino.

Between 1990 and 2000, according to city Planning Commission data, South Philadelphia saw the largest increase - almost doubling - in the number of Asian residents of any Philadelphia neighborhood.

City officials have said that trend accelerated over the last decade with a dramatic influx of immigrants from China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. With the city's traditional Chinatown in Center City hemmed in by development and a lack of affordable housing, South Philadelphia has become the location of what some call "Chinatown South."

Yu said the usual neighborhood conflicts between foreign-born and native-born residents were often accentuated when they seep into the schools.

"The violence is caused by a very small minority of kids, but a very small number of bad actors can have a very big impact on the climate of a school," Yu added.

Even before the Dec. 3 incident, the city Human Relations Commission had been planning to respond to the growing tension within the high school, working with the U.S. Justice Department to conduct a SPIRIT program - Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together - targeting problems of racism and violence.

According to Rue Landau, the commission's executive director, the commission and the Justice Department had been planning the program for almost a year and had scheduled the two-day program at South Philadelphia High School for Dec. 8 and 9.

The program was canceled, Landau said, because of the walkout by Asian immigrant students after the Dec. 3 incident.

Landau said that the program had been rescheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday and that she hoped tomorrow's meeting convinces Asian students it is safe to return to the high school.

Ackerman said last night that she believed the process would take time, but that she was optimistic after her meeting with students Friday.

"At this point, it is a time for healing and moving forward," Ackerman said, "and making sure this is a school where, regardless of race or ethnicity, every student feels safe and is respected."