Add the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to a growing list of agencies or panels investigating complaints of racial discrimination against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School.
By a 9-0 vote late Mondayafternoon, the commission decided to investigate long-standing allegations of racially motivated assaults and harassment at the school on Broad Street near Snyder Avenue, commission officials said yesterday.
The vote followed several hours of testimony about conditions at the school that escalated into a series of assaults Dec. 3 on about 30 Asian students by a number of mostly African-American students.
"It's clear that those testifying were expressing long-standing concerns," Stephen A. Glassman, commission chairman, said in a statement released yesterday.
"We have not drawn any conclusions about the nature, scope or extent of possible racial discrimination, but we feel strongly that we cannot stand by after such compelling pleas for our involvement."
Glassman cited a student's statement read by Michelle Nguyen, an activist with Boat People SOS, a group that helps Vietnamese Americans, as particularly powerful:
" 'We are targeted because we are Asian immigrants. Every day we face taunts and violence. It hurts when we are attacked by other students. It hurts more when school staff ignore, deny or cover up the racial attacks against us.'
"Nguyen and others' heartfelt pleas for our help convinced us that we must act immediately," Glassman said.
Evelyn Sample-Oates, district spokeswoman, said yesterday that the district "will certainly fully cooperate" with the commission's investigation.
Sample-Oates also said that an independent investigation begun at the request of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman may be completed by mid-January.
And Helen Gym, an activist with Asian Americans United, said a New York civil-rights group still intends to file a federal civil-rights complaint against the district for failing to address the violence against Asian students.
"That will move forward," Gym said yesterday.
Glassman noted that more than two years ago, the commission held a town meeting to address complaints that African and Caribbean immigrant students were being targeted for assaults by African-American students in other schools across the city.
"We heard very similar allegations of an unsafe environment in the schools then," Glassman said.
Members of other immigrant groups also spoke out about assaults on their students at a recent School Reform Commission meeting.
Glassman said the human relations commission heard from a number of public officials who said the recent turmoil was not only a racial conflict.
"While we see this as having a significant racially based component," Glassman said. "The point was being made [by other testimony] that it should not be seen as a black-on-Asian or any other group issue. But this was part of a larger culture of accepted violence in the schools that has not been dealt with over the years."
Xu Lin, a community organizer with the Chinatown Development Corporation who testified Monday, said yesterday that he doesn't have much hope in increased security measures recently placed at the school.
"They have a lot of cameras and a lot of police in prisons, but that doesn't make a prison safe," Xu Lin said.
"It's the same situation at South Philly high, and that doesn't make the school safe. We have to build communications between the students," Lin said.
And that, he said, is the responsibility of the school's leadership, which he said has been insensitive to the language-assistance needs of immigrant students.