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City panel hears of more targeting of immigrants at schools

Refugee students from Iraq are the latest target of violence in the Philadelphia School District, an advocate told a city panel Tuesday.

Refugee students from Iraq are the latest target of violence in the Philadelphia School District, an advocate told a city panel Tuesday.

Testifying before the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, Marwan Kreidie said his agency has recently dealt with three acts of violence against Iraqi immigrant students.

Last year, two Fels High students were chased and attacked after school. Recently, an 18-year-old was knocked unconscious outside Northeast High, and some Palestinian youths were targeted at Olney High.

All occurred because of the students' ethnicity, he said.

"I believe that immigrant children are being targeted at Philadelphia schools," said Kreidie, executive director of the Philadelphia Arab-American Community Development Corp.

In the Olney case, Kreidie said, his organization was at first consulted to help with the situation, then told it was not a case of racial violence.

"The school district wants to say that there are no ethnic incidents, that immigrants are not being intimidated," said Kreidie.

John Frangipani, the district's chief operations officer, said that was not the case.

"All the incidents are on our radar screen," Frangipani said. "None of the violence is acceptable."

On Tuesday, the commission convened at an Olney recreation center for the sixth in a series of hearings on intergroup tension and violence in city schools. The meetings were prompted by racial violence at South Philadelphia High. In December, 30 Asian students were attacked by groups of mostly African American students, spurring a boycott by Asian students and state and federal investigations.

After the hearings, the city commission will present a report to the district. Members have said they were looking not just for trouble spots, but also for best practices.

Fels High has the advantage of a proactive administration that acknowledges racial tensions, brings in outside groups to help, and addresses problems head-on, and things have improved, said Mia-lia Kiernan, a staffer at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia.

But violence continues, and more help is needed, Kiernan said, listing incidents that occurred this school year: a Cambodian boy attacked behind the school and left with a split lip and broken tooth; a Vietnamese boy beaten up in a locker room; a special-needs Cambodian teen attacked on his way home from school.

The students tell her, " 'Mia-lia, this is what happens to us. We just deal with it,' " Kiernan said. But eventually, they get angry, and she worries about gangs forming.

"There's always going to be new immigrants coming in," Kiernan said. "Are we just going to stand by and say that it's OK that they get harassed?"

Eileen Coutts, Fels' principal, has been creative and supportive, but she needs more help, Kiernan said - professional development for her staff on how to handle students who use racial slurs would be a start.

Frangipani, from the school district, said he would reach out to Coutts and see what resources can be found.

Jeffrey Hackett, a community activist and school district employee, said that adults needed to acknowledge racial divisions and talk to children about them openly.

"Until we talk about that, the kids are going to emulate our ignorance," Hackett said. "We practice a hidden prejudice that is killing our children."

Two district principals said their schools had effectively quelled tensions and lowered violence.

At Franklin Elementary in Lawncrest, a grant helped pay for "No Place For Hate," an Anti-Defamation League-sponsored program that helps children respond to racism and other forms of prejudice and to prevent it. The school is racially and ethnically diverse, with students who speak 22 languages and come from 18 different countries.

With the program, "we have increased attendance, as well as a decrease in our serious incidents," said Roslynn Green, Franklin's principal.

Nelson Reyes, principal of Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, said the school - which has the district's largest population of Arab American students - uses the arts, peer mediation, and extra adult support to draw students together.

"We reach out a lot into the community and try to help out where we can," Reyes said.