AN ATTORNEY with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund yesterday said the organization will file a federal complaint against the Philadelphia School District, charging that school officials have failed to address repeated violent attacks against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School.
"The district's superintendent and principal of South Philadelphia High School allowed the racial violence at South Philadelphia to escalate to this point," attorney Cecilia Chen contended at a news conference held yesterday by Asian students and community leaders at the Asian Arts Initiative, on Vine Street near 12th.
Chen said the New York-based legal organization plans to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice's Office for Civil Rights, charging the district with violating Asian students' equal-protection rights under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.
Her comments came after the school's new principal, LaGreta Brown, and district Superintendent Arlene Ackerman held a separate news conference at the school.
In her first public comments since the attacks, Brown said yesterday morning: "I would like to personally apologize to all students affected by the violence of last week."
About 30 Asian students were attacked inside and outside the school, at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, on Dec. 3. Victims have said four of five attacks that day were perpetrated by African-American students on Asian students. They said a fifth fight was between Cambodian and Vietnamese students.
In outlining a new safety plan, Brown said yesterday: "I know firsthand that students cannot learn if they don't feel safe and I am disappointed and upset with last week's racial incidents and fights that escalated to violence."
She said the school will work with the U.S. Justice Department to start a "Spirit Program" to help resolve and prevent racial and ethnic conflict. The school will also install the first 21 of 63 new security cameras by Monday, the rest by Jan. 4.
Also starting Monday, there will be additional school police. Seven officers who worked at South Philly on the day of the attacks have been reassigned to other schools.
Among the new officers will be Sgt. Robert Samuels, an African-American who speaks fluent Cantonese, after having lived in Hong Kong for seven years.
Ackerman urged students who have boycotted classes to return to school Monday and said she will be there to welcome them.
About 50 Asian students began a boycott of the school this past Monday. District officials said about 25 to 30 students were still boycotting as of yesterday.
One boycotting student was ushered in to speak at the school's news conference. Trung Tran, a 17-year-old Vietnamese-American student, who happened to be visiting the school yesterday, said he hasn't decided if he's ready to return.
He said adding more police officers makes the school seem "like a prison."
"We don't really need more cops," Tran, a senior, said. "We just need to have better relations between the other students."
At the afternoon news conference with Asian students and community leaders, students expressed disappointment in Ackerman's refusal to meet with them at a location outside the school to discuss how they could safely return to school.
Wei Chen, president of the school's Chinese-American Student Association, said through a Mandarin translator that he considers the school's proposed programs to help ease the conflict to be "minor issues." The bigger issue, he said, is that "the school staff's attitude should change."
Chen, who has African-American friends, also downplayed any possible racial motivations behind the attacks. "The issue is not between different groups or any races, but it's how the school handles the school climate," he said.
Afterward, Chen told reporters he doesn't think adding school police will help since he contended they are part of the problem.
He said he thinks there should be changes in school or school-district staffing, but would not name names. He also said Asian and African-American students should form a group to get to know each other better.
Two Vietnamese students, Truc-Uyen Nguyen, 18, a senior, and Duc Le, 17, a junior, said through a translator that they were also disappointed Ackerman would not meet with them outside the school. Chen and the two Vietnamese students were not among those attacked on Dec. 3.
Ackerman said at the morning news conference that she will meet with the students, but said the school is an appropriate location and she will make sure the students feel safe.
"I will meet with the students and their families separately," she said, stressing that she did not want Asian community leaders in the meeting. "I don't want other people there that might cause more tension."
Ackerman said she would talk with Asian community leaders in a separate session with African-American, Latino and white leaders.
Allan Wong, a retired pharmaceutical scientist who serves on the Mayor's Commission on Asian American Affairs, said as he waited for the afternoon news conference to begin yesterday that he had contacted the principals at South Philly, Samuel Fels and Furness high schools earlier this school year to try to meet with them to discuss ongoing violence against Asian students.
Both Fels and Furness' principals were "receptive and cooperative," but Brown, at South Philly, "wouldn't answer my phone calls," he said. A vice principal took his third call to the school and said she would set something up, but didn't, he said.
"It's quite clear to me they have an attitude at South Philadelphia High," Wong said. "What we need is leadership with the correct attitude."
After the attacks, the school suspended 10 students - six African-Americans and four Asians - with the intent to transfer them to one or more disciplinary schools.
Michael Silverman, regional high school superintendent, said last week: "Everybody who was suspended was fighting."