THE SCHOOL DISTRICT'S assignment of district police Sgt. Robert "Sarge" Samuels, who had been lauded as a part of a solution to racially tinged violence at South Philadelphia High, has provoked accusations that he has used heavy-handed tactics against students - an approach that community activists say is the last thing the troubled school needs.
District officials said that Samuels, 45, a martial-arts enthusiast who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese dialects of Chinese, had been handpicked by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman because his presence would help Asian immigrant students who speak little English.
But his detractors say that he's a bully with a short fuse and a penchant for violence. Yesterday, Samuels allegedly handcuffed a student for mouthing off.
Samuels, who previously worked at Olney High, was assigned to South Philly High in the wake of attacks on a number of Asian students by a group of black students.
About 50 Asian students subsequently boycotted the school to protest what they and community activists said was a lackluster response by district and school officials to persistent harassment against Asian students.
Several students returned to school yesterday, and the rest announced in an e-mail after meeting with Ackerman that they would return to school today.
The controversy about Samuels surfaced after two Frankford High School police officers were accused last month of beating a student who had arrived late.
On Monday, members of the local chapter of the National Action Network, the group led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, called for the district to investigate the Frankford matter and Samuels' reassignment.
The group said that complaints had been lodged against Samuels for alleged actions during his time at Olney High, including accusations that he put on boxing gloves and roughed up students.
Yesterday, shortly before school was dismissed, students who were gathered in front of the school said that Samuels, who started at South Philly High on Friday, had already made an impact.
But the reviews were mixed.
"He's a very [strict] disciplinary man," said student Dawn White. "He has this idea of what you're supposed to do and if you don't do it, you're out of here."
But White said that she liked Samuels. "He tries to get to understand you first."
Senior Tamika Brown, 17, had a different impression of him.
Brown said that Samuels ordered her handcuffed in Room 106, the room where students are interviewed by school police. She said that her infraction yesterday was being late for one of her classes.
After being turned away by her teacher, Brown said, she hung out in a stairwell with another student. She was later caught and escorted to Samuels, who she said was yelling at other students.
She said something to Samuels, and said that he looked at her and told another police officer: " 'Put handcuffs on her.' "
"They gripped her up like she was a man," said Jade Diaz, 17, a friend of Brown.
District officials defended his actions.
"Handcuffs are used by officers when they deem necessary," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard. He added that the student was found to have contraband items, although he couldn't specify what they were.
But when told yesterday that the student said she had been handcuffed, Michael Lodise, school police union president, said that did not sound like correct police procedure.
"Our policy is to not handcuff anyone unless they are placed under arrest," said Lodise, who added that Samuels has a good reputation at the district.
Brown was not arrested or charged with a crime. Samuels did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.
Tyreek Wiggins, a 14-year-old freshman at Olney, said that Samuels had a reputation at that school for being rough with students.
Wiggins said that he had gotten in trouble twice at Olney this year on what he contended were unfounded claims.
Still, he said he was handcuffed when he was taken to the school police office.
"I was handcuffed to the chair," Wiggins said. "He walked up to me, balled up his fist and he pulled his arm back like he was going to hit me. But another school officer stopped him just in time."
Officials are rallying behind the sergeant.
"These are just allegations," Lodise said of the Olney reports. "They're all totally false allegations."
Advocates are worried that Samuels may not help during a time when students are trying to repair relations at South Philly High.
"It's a question of good adult and student relationships," said Helen Gym, of Asian Americans United. "The adults who are there, are they caring, can they provide strong role models?"
About 10 to 12 of the 50 Asian students who had been boycotting all last week returned to school yesterday.
Wei Chen, president of a Chinese student group, led the group out when school dismissed yesterday afternoon. Chen said this group of students were testing conditions to see if they were safe for all of the boycotting students to return.
Asked how the day went yesterday, Chen said, "so-so," but added that the increased security seems like a good idea.
A teacher said that perhaps only 15 to 20 black students at the school, which has more than 900 students, were responsible for attacks on the Asian students.
In a statement issued last night, the students who had been boycotting wrote: "We have made change by standing together."
"We are proud of what we have done. If something happens again after all this, we know that we have strong wills and we will stand together again."
The statement was made soon after the group met with Ackerman in Chinatown last night, one of several among the district, students and community members, and hours after Mayor Nutter had praised South Philly High students for returning to school yesterday morning.
The mayor denied allegations that the district had not responded quickly enough and explained that the students' return to school was negotiated through many conversations and back-channel discussions.
Gym, who's worked closely with the students since the Dec. 3 attacks, said she was disappointed with Nutter's remarks.
"Instead of recognizing or commending the students, his comments just implied that he was happy the embarrassment was gone," Gym said.
The district has added 21 security cameras and two bilingual counselors.
The seven officers who worked at South Philly on the day of the attacks have been reassigned to other schools.
Among the new officers was Samuels, an African-American who learned Chinese while living in Hong Kong for seven years.
While in Hong Kong, Samuels acted in several films, landing mostly small roles as villains or gang members, according to an online movie database.
Specializing in the martial arts forms of Hung Gar and Praying Mantis, Samuels, a West Catholic High grad, received 22 commendations for stellar work in the schools he's worked, said Vincent Thompson, a spokesman for the district.
"He's known throughout the district as being a professional police officer," said Gallard.