Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman rejected claims of excessive disciplinary force that have been leveled against Sgt. Robert Samuels, the school district cop who some say is unfit to police students at South Philadelphia High.
Ackerman said after a School Reform Commission meeting last night that she had watched Samuels interact with students earlier in the day at the school and was pleased with she saw.
"They're kind of fascinated by him," she said. "They seemed to have accepted him. The Chinese students are also comfortable with him because he speaks Cantonese."
Samuels, who previously worked at Olney High, was assigned to the South Philly school to help ease relations between students in the wake of assaults on a number of Asian students by a small group of African-American students on Dec. 3.
In contrast to her glowing remarks about the 10-year school police veteran, critics maintain that he's not the man for the job.
Complaints were lodged against Samuels, a martial arts enthusiast, for alleged actions during his time at Olney High, including handcuffing a student and roughing up others. District officials said an investigation into the allegations found the claims were untrue.
A South Philly High student said that Samuels told another officer to handcuff her on Tuesday - Samuels' third day on the job - for talking back. The district contended that the student had contraband items on her and that Samuels' actions were justified.
About 50 Asian students who had boycotted school after the attacks returned to school on Tuesday and yesterday.
The group had met with Ackerman, who urged them to end a boycott that has lasted for more than a week.
"I told them, 'the option of staying out of school was no longer an option,' " she said last night, adding that any more time off could have affected their grades.
The district proposed extra security cameras, bilingual counselors, new security officers and a federal racial tolerance program to address the strife at South Philly High. A task force was created to address multicultural issues districtwide.
Ackerman also expects a report by retired U.S. District Judge James T. Giles, whom the district asked to investigate the Dec. 3 incident, in mid-January.
Organizers and students involved agreed it's a good start, but the thing is, says other community activists, South Philly High isn't the only school that sees this type of trouble.
"This is a citywide problem," Vernard Johnson, a health and education advocate said to Ackerman during the meeting last night.
"It's a big city out there that needs to hear what's going on."
Zac Steele, a community organizer with Juntos, an immigrant advocacy group in South Philadelphia, said immigrant parents and their bilingual children feel helpless by the constant harassment by other students and the schools' reluctance to address the issue.
"It's not new to some of us to hear about racial tensions in schools," Steele said.
"Racial tensions that exist in South Philadelphia High School certainly exist in other schools in South Philly."