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Attacking immigrant students not new, say those involved

Soon after Superintendent Arlene Ackerman arrived in Philadelphia in 2008, officials set up what was to be a friendly meeting with parents and representatives from immigrant groups.

Leaders from the Asian community spoke with students last week during a boycott the high school. Those involved are saying the attacks are nothing new. (Charles Fox / File)
Leaders from the Asian community spoke with students last week during a boycott the high school. Those involved are saying the attacks are nothing new. (Charles Fox / File)Read more

Soon after Superintendent Arlene Ackerman arrived in Philadelphia in 2008, officials set up what was to be a friendly meeting with parents and representatives from immigrant groups.

The meeting lasted two hours and focused on one issue, according to people present: Immigrants were being beaten and harassed in city classrooms. What would the district do?

Then, in October last year, five Asian students from South Philadelphia High School were attacked near the subway station outside the school.

Leaders of the Asian community quietly met with district officials, who promised better security. A Chinese student group formed.

As that school year unfolded, immigrant students were attacked at Fels, Furness, and South Philadelphia High Schools. In the summer, members of the Asian community met with district leaders and the new South Philadelphia principal.

Officials promised to monitor the targeted students, especially at South Philadelphia, and said conditions would improve, according to people who attended.

But little changed, and on Dec. 3, 30 more Asian students were attacked. Seven required hospital treatment, and 50 students launched a boycott that lasted seven days.

"This particular incident was horrible because of the magnitude, but this isn't new," said Zac Steele, an organizer with Juntos, a South Philadelphia Latino advocacy group. "The school district knows about all of this. They've known."

Through a spokeswoman, Ackerman said she had put fixes in place after her first meeting with the immigrant community - more translators and bilingual security officers. No one told her more was needed.

"To her understanding, things had been put in place and there weren't any great issues outstanding," spokeswoman Evelyn Sample-Oates said. "She didn't know of any breakdown, that there were issues remaining. A big part of this is that a lot of the students don't report violence because they're afraid."

While the latest confrontation involved mostly African American students allegedly beating Asian students, immigrants of all races have long felt unsafe in city schools, dozens of students, recent graduates, teachers, and activists said in interviews.

Immigrants are easy targets, said Wei Chen, a South Philadelphia senior and president of the South Philadelphia High School Chinese-American Student Association.

"They think the new students cannot speak the language and will not report [the assault] to the school," he said through an interpreter.

"Most immigrants at South Philly High, if not all of them, have been intimidated or beaten up," said a newcomer from Honduras, a recent graduate.

As manager of Boat People SOS-Delaware Valley Branch, Nancy Nguyen has worked with Vietnamese youths who attend South Philadelphia High, where, she said, there's conflict between immigrant and native-born students.

"They get laughed at when they try to speak English," she said. "And the really heart-wrenching things are the small physical attacks. They get tripped when they walk down a hallway."

The problem has been particularly acute in South Philadelphia, where the Asian population has been growing for years and where Spanish-speaking immigrants have in recent years begun to settle.

Massive South Philadelphia High, at Broad and Snyder, is a complicated place - five stories and about 900 students, 84 percent of them needy. One in four needs special-education services.

Southern, as it is known, has had four principals in five years. About 70 percent of its students are African American, 18 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent white. Twelve percent are considered "English-language learners," representing at least 18 languages. The most commonly spoken of them are Chinese dialects, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Cambodian.

District officials admit the problem has deep roots.

Two recent graduates of South Philadelphia High from Honduras stressed that the violence isn't limited to Asian students. The two asked that their names be withheld because they lack documents to live in the U.S. legally.

"You always felt like you were in danger," one said.

"You have to be dressing similar to the other kids, or talking like them, or you get jumped," the second added.

Shortly after the first student arrived in the United States and registered at South Philadelphia, he was in the lunch line when an African American student motioned to him and said something. The student didn't know that the young man wanted to cut in front of him in line. He just stood there.

The other boy punched him.

"I didn't want to the tell the police," he said. "I was too afraid."

South Philadelphia High's second floor has mostly been devoted to English for Speakers of Other Languages classes. To immigrant students, the floor felt like a haven of quiet and learning in an otherwise chaotic building. This year, teachers said, new principal LaGreta Brown told them that she wanted to end the second-floor arrangement.

"If you don't have a system where everyone's integrated, there are problems," said Michael Silverman, the regional superintendent.

The enclave also stirred resentment, teachers said.

"There's resentment for people who would love to have the same sense of community, the same sense of calmness," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. On other floors, students walk out of class "with no fear. They have nothing to lose. It's chaos," the teacher added.

While some meaningful learning does go on at the school, "it can be bleak."

Even before the attacks, overall violence and assaults at the school were up over the same period from the year before, and the school was on the state's "persistently dangerous" list, a designation under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But the problem stretches back decades.

Lai Har Cheung was 8 when her family settled near the Italian Market in the early 1980s, among the first Asians to move into what was a largely white neighborhood.

The harassment started immediately, she said. Cheung said she had heard racial slurs daily - kids would bang on her family's door and run. Her house was pelted with eggs. She was beaten by flute-wielding student.

She felt powerless, she said.

"You begin to think that's the norm, that everyone gets initiated that way," Cheung said. "It was emotional, psychological harassment."

Cheung, now 33 and a child advocate and mentor, said the cycle should have stopped with her generation.

Jan Ting, a Temple University law professor who studies immigration, said newcomers often suffered.

"You can't do anything about your race. And you really can't do anything about your accent. It's bad enough you look different than anybody else, but you sound different, too," Ting said.

Duong Thang Ly, a senior from Vietnam, said his issue was not with the attackers, but with the adults.

"No one in school helped us get along with each other, and that led to the situation getting worse," Ly said.

Now back in school, the boycotting teens were promised more security and programs to help students from different backgrounds get along. But they returned saying they were "suspending" their boycott, and plans remain for a federal civil-rights complaint.

"They still have concerns," Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, said of the students. "They're keeping their options open."