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Students say assault report is lacking

Duyngoc Truong is a lithe, 16-year-old junior who stands 5-foot-3 and weighs 108 pounds. At dismissal Dec. 3, she was chased through the streets outside South Philadelphia High School until she ran out of room to run, pinned against a brick wall of the St. Agnes Continuing Care Center by a mob of a hundred, and pummeled about the face and head.

Duong Ly (left), 18, and Bach Tong, 16, during an interview at Victims Witness Services of South Philadelphia on March 5. ( David M Warren / Staff Photographer )
Duong Ly (left), 18, and Bach Tong, 16, during an interview at Victims Witness Services of South Philadelphia on March 5. ( David M Warren / Staff Photographer )Read more

Duyngoc Truong is a lithe, 16-year-old junior who stands 5-foot-3 and weighs 108 pounds.

At dismissal Dec. 3, she was chased through the streets outside South Philadelphia High School until she ran out of room to run, pinned against a brick wall of the St. Agnes Continuing Care Center by a mob of a hundred, and pummeled about the face and head.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God, maybe I'm going to die,' " she said.

She told her story to an investigator who helped compile the official school-district report on the Dec. 3 violence. But in an interview, Truong disputed how the report describes a key part of the assault.

Interviews with six Asian students and a legal complaint obtained by the newspaper show:

The students say investigators ignored crucial portions of their accounts of the violence.

Youths insist that interviewers cut off their attempts to place the Dec. 3 violence in the context of years of assaults against Asian students.

At least 26 separate assaults against Asian students occurred during the 2008-09 school year alone, the complaint says.

Retired federal judge James Giles, who conducted the inquiry at the request of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, said his report was objective, balanced, and aimed at discovering the truth.

Neither he nor his staff blocked any student's attempt to describe earlier incidents at the school, he said, and all of the interviewed students were afforded full opportunity to tell all that they knew.

"The first question," Giles said, "was what do you know of your own personal knowledge? What have you heard, if anything, and is there anything that you'd like to say that we haven't asked you about?"

Anyone with additional information should report it to the district, he said. In fact, "if the school district wants me to do a further investigation, I'd be happy to," he said.

Among the incidents recounted in the Feb. 23 Giles report is the horrific dismissal-time attack on 10 Vietnamese students outside the school. The report says the students were assaulted after "something" - unknown and unidentified - caused them to run from their adult escorts and into danger.

Truong, in the newspaper interview, said there was no mystery about it. She and her friends were being followed by 20 to 40 African American students. When that group ran toward them, the Vietnamese, mostly girls, ran to try to escape, she said.

"I saw them run at us, and then I started to run," she said.

Giles said he did not see "any gross inconsistency" between Truong's account and the report.

"The people who were there with the students, side by side with them, told me the students, as I understand it, started to walk faster and faster, and they ran."

The report is deliberately limited in scope, focused on Dec. 2 and 3. To have delved into every previous incident, Giles said, would have required staff, resources, and time that he did not have.

Asian community advocates say a major failure of the report is it does not tie the Dec. 3 violence to years of previous attacks. The daylong assaults Dec. 3 were a culmination, not an aberration, they said.

According to the legal document obtained by The Inquirer, which outlined the physical assaults on Asian students last school year, one boy was beaten so badly that the bones in his face were broken. Another was beaten so often that he dropped out of school, the complaint says.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said late Friday that it is district policy not to comment on an ongoing complaint.

The document is an addendum to the federal civil-rights complaint filed in January by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is seeking broad reforms. The agency interviewed students at the school to compile the record, which was submitted to the Justice Department.

After the filing, district officials called the allegations "outrageous" and "hurtful."

The addendum cites numerous times when Asian students were randomly approached in a hall and struck in the face or head. Other attacks involved multiple assailants and victims.

For instance, on Oct. 6, 2008, the document says, several Chinese students were standing at the door of their second-floor classroom when four African American students approached and taunted them with racial slurs.

One African American student drew his finger across his throat, then said, "When I see one Asian, I beat that Asian up."

The taunting students left briefly and gathered others - accounts differ whether that was before or after the slurs - then returned and attacked the Chinese students, the document says.

The names of the victims were redacted in the copy obtained by The Inquirer.

District officials have acknowledged racial turmoil at South Philadelphia High and throughout the district, saying they are combating the problem with diversity training for staff and students.

Wei Chen, 19, a senior, said he had tried to tell a district-report investigator that he kept a log of assaults on Asians - 45 in two years. He was attacked twice, in 2007 and in late 2008 or early 2009, he said.

The attorney questioning him for the Giles report was not interested, Chen said. Instead he was directed to answer specific questions.

"I wanted to tell the whole story about what happened, in 2008, 2009," said Chen, who is president of the Chinese-American Student Association. "He said, 'We're just talking about Dec. 3.' "

Giles said of Chen's assertion: "That's not true."

Chen was interviewed by a Giles associate "who assured me he was given more than every opportunity to say more than what happened on Dec. 2 and 3," Giles said. "And the notes of the interview support that."

Duong Nghe Ly, 18, a junior, said that on Dec. 3, he saw a horrendous attack on Chinese students in the lunchroom, but was not interviewed for the district report. He disputed the part of the report that, citing video footage, says some Asians continued to eat lunch peacefully as chaos erupted.

As up to 70 mostly African American students surged toward several Asians in the lunch line, other students kept eating "without incident, even while the attacks are occurring," the report says.

Ly said: "It's totally wrong. I was a witness. When the Chinese students got beaten up, it was total panic."

Teachers pulled Asian students out of the lunchroom so they would not be next to be attacked, Ly said.

Giles said Ly was correct that calm had evaporated as violence had broken out. The report, he said, refers to the start of an attack in the lunchroom hallway, where a videotape shows Asian students "sitting at a table as if they're saying, 'What the heck is going on?' "

The report blames the violence on unsubstantiated rumors that followed an after-school altercation between Asian and African American students the previous day. Investigators interviewed some, but not all, of the Asian students who were injured or threatened Dec. 3. Likewise, not all teachers and school staffers were interviewed.

Giles' law firm, Pepper Hamilton L.L.P., was paid $99,553 through February for work by the retired judge, two associates, and a paralegal.

Upon the report's release, Ackerman accepted and praised it, calling it "fair."

The report cites race as a factor in all of the Dec. 3 attacks. It notes the assailants in the dismissal assault included some white students and a female Cambodian. Asian community advocates said the key point was not the races of the attackers, but that all victims were Asian.

The melee sent seven students to hospitals and led to a seven-day boycott by about 50 Asian students. Altogether, 19 students were suspended and 14 were transferred to alternative schools. Five transfers were overturned. District officials said they could not provide a racial breakdown of the suspended students.

Chao Fei Zheng, 19, a freshman who was among the Chinese students attacked in the lunchroom, said he had not been permitted to describe fully what he experienced.

"I feel like Judge Giles interrupted my storytelling, and when I was halfway through, he asked questions to stop [me]," he told The Inquirer through an interpreter.

"In the report, it says the students wanted to go to the lunchroom and the school could not stop them." Actually, Zheng said, "a security guard pointed at me and told me to follow another security guard to the lunchroom."

There, he and his friends were attacked from behind.

Xu Lin, a community organizer with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., accompanied Zheng to be interviewed for the Giles report.

"At the end of Chao Fei's interview, I protested," Lin said. "I said Chao Fei did not get a chance to tell the complete story. Judge Giles said, 'It's OK. I'm going to talk to others who have been here longer.' "

Giles told The Inquirer that "with all respect to Mr. Xu Lin, I have to dispute that. I have respect for him, but I don't respect his recollection. . . . I would have a good memory if somebody said: 'I have to tell you more. I have to tell you more.' I paid very close attention to what was being asked and what was being said."

Truong, the 11th grader, said she was upset that the report suggests gang activity could lie behind the Dec. 3 violence.

When she and her friends get together, Truong said, it's to study. For fun she plays badminton. She works on weekends at a Vietnamese restaurant, and yearns to go to college.

The report says that at dismissal, a group of Vietnamese kids stood by an exit, afraid to move into the crowds on Broad Street. Principal LaGreta Brown appeared with other staffers and told the Vietnamese students to follow her.

The principal led the students, including Truong, onto Broad. The group at first easily moved north along the east side of Broad, the report says. But "something, though, caused the students to move faster," which "created a gap between the adult escorts."

Truong, however, said she had lost sight of the principal and other adults almost as soon as they reached Broad.

The report says the Vietnamese youths ignored school administrators' shouted instructions not to cross Broad. Truong said she had never heard anyone yell anything.

After she and her friends crossed Passyunk Avenue, they began to be chased, she said.

Truong said someone had grabbed the hood of her sweatshirt, yanked her backward, and punched her neck. She crouched, trapped against the St. Agnes wall, trying to cover her head as she was struck.

"They hit me like two, three, or four times," she said. "Somebody kicked or punched my back. Then somebody hit me."

She was a short distance from friends who were being similarly assaulted.

Truong said someone in the crowd had yelled, "Cop! Cop! Cop!" and the attackers ran. Then the principal, police, and other staffers arrived, asking if she was hurt.

She was taken by ambulance to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and released after being evaluated. For two days, her neck and back were sore, but she had no lasting injuries, she said.

What has changed, Truong said, is that now, whenever she notices someone walking behind her, she automatically walks faster.