Even after a seven-day protest, a meeting with the superintendent, and promises of more security, Asian students still feel endangered and underserved at South Philadelphia High, community members testified before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission yesterday.
Members of the commission said they expected to launch their own investigation into the racial violence at South Philadelphia High and said they would work quickly to address what they called an "urgent" matter.
"There was clearly a tremendous failure all across the system, and that's what we're trying to get at," said Stephen A. Glassman, commission chair.
Glassman urged anyone who had been discriminated against to file a complaint with the commission.
An investigation is automatically launched if someone files a complaint with the commission, though none has yet been lodged. Even if no one makes a complaint, an investigation can occur if eight of the 11 commissioners vote to open one.
Commissioner Ismael Arcelay wanted to call a vote to launch such a probe, but Glassman asked that he wait until after a meeting of commissioners, students, and their advocates, scheduled for early next month.
Michelle Nguyen, who works for Boat People SOS, an organization that helps Vietnamese Americans, told the commissioners that immigrant students feel little has changed at the school.
"They're still very afraid," Nguyen said. "There are a lot more cameras and more police officers, but they don't feel safe. They feel that the school is not really doing much to help them."
Evelyn Sample-Oates, a school district spokeswoman, said the district had received no complaints that students still felt unsafe.
"If they don't feel safe, we need to know why. They've got to speak up," she said.
On Dec. 3, about 30 Asian students at South Philadelphia High were beaten by large groups of mostly African American students. About 50 students stayed out of school for seven days in protest.
After a meeting with district Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the boycotters agreed to return to school, but community organizers say a federal civil-rights complaint will still be filed.
The district has added more security cameras and more police officers and counselors and has said it would institute diversity training for students and staff.
The district has also enlisted a former federal judge to conduct an independent investigation. His report is due next month.
In testimony to the commission, Xu Lin, an organizer with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said the district last week failed to provide translation for a ceremony for students being inducted into a new student chapter of the NAACP.
Lin said the translation request was made to principal LaGreta Brown for students in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESL) program.
"The principal's attitude toward ESL students and their needs for language assistance hasn't changed a bit," Lin said. "While the school has many ESL students who need language assistance on a daily basis, she continues to ignore the issue."
Sample-Oates, the spokeswoman, said that the district received no request for translation at the NAACP event. "If we had, we would have gladly done that," she said.
Chungsoo Lee, a Bucks County employment discrimination specialist who has been working with the community, told the commissioners there were concerns that the school's ESL program was being broken up.
Traditionally, most ESL classes were conducted in a sheltered environment in the school's second floor. Students have told the activists that this year, all but the newest immigrants are being sent into regular classes without proper accommodations.
South Philadelphia teachers have said that Brown, the principal, had said that she wants to end the second-floor arrangement and that the enclave stirred resentment.
"That's another issue that we'll certainly be looking into," Glassman said.
Debbie Wei, principal of the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School and a former district teacher, testified that the students have no disagreement with African Americans.
"Was this attack racial? No doubt. But it was not because of the race of the attackers. They could have been any race at all," Wei testified.
She said the students fault South Philadelphia staff, whose behavior, she said, was "puzzling, troubling, and potentially criminal."
Before the afternoon public session, commissioners met with district officials in a lengthy closed-door morning meeting. District chief of staff Tomas Hanna sat in for Ackerman.
Glassman called the meeting "very productive."
Sample-Oates agreed and said Hanna outlined the school's new security measures for the commissioners.