There is a long history of intolerance, assaults and racial slurs targeting Asian students at South Philadelphia High School, students, parents and community leaders told school district officials yesterday.
" 'As soon as we open our mouths and speak, they treat us like we're animals,' " Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United quoted a Vietnamese student.
" 'Where are you from?' 'Hey, Chinese.' 'Yo Dragon Ball.' 'Are you Bruce Lee?' 'Speak English!' '' Somekawa said the students are told.
Those aren't the words of the students who harass Asians, she said.
"They are the words of the adult staff at South Philadelphia High. So stop blaming the children and start owning the responsibility."
Somekawa was one of dozens who testified before the School Reform Commission yesterday.
About 150 students and adults had marched to district headquarters on Broad Street near Spring Garden to express outrage over assaults on 26 Asian students last Thursday.
Many of the students have boycotted classes all week.
The protesters carried signs, some reading: "Stop School Violence," "It's Not a Question of Who Beat Whom, but WHO LET IT HAPPEN" and "Grown-ups Let Us Down."
Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the district has formed a "Task Force for Racial and Cultural Harmony."
And she said the Department of Justice will help the school's staff and students start a "Spirit Program" to resolve and prevent racial conflicts.
But Ackerman angered some in the audience when she said the attacks last Thursday had been sparked by an incident the day before when two Asian students beat up an African-American student after school near a drugstore.
Helen Gym, of Asian Americans United, said Ackerman's statement "underscores" the racial nature of the attacks.
"If this were retaliation, then why didn't the students look for the two students in the Wednesday fight," she said after the meeting. "They just started attacking students just because they were Asian."
Over and over again, Asian community leaders said the real problem is "not just a bunch of bad kids," but the school's leadership.
Xu Lin, community organizer for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said community members were upset during a meeting with school officials last Friday "to see the principal playing with her cell phone when the students and their parents were giving statements about the violence that had occurred the day before. We were even more offended to see the safety manager . . . sleeping during the meeting in front of the whole community."
A number of Asian students pointed out that they have African-American friends who have helped them with their English and have been nice to them.
"I am a peaceful person," Wei Chen, president of the Chinese Student Association, said in an interview after the meeting. "I do not care about the color of someone's skin. I care about how you treat people."
At one point, a multiracial contingent of South Philadelphia High students asked the Asian students to come back to school.
Senior student Duong-Thang Ly thanked the students, then added: "We hope to return to school soon, but we want to the school to be safe for all of us."