What a difference a year can make.
The School Reform Commission yesterday unanimously settled state and federal complaints that the district was "deliberately indifferent" to harassment of Asian students at South Philadelphia High School.
The agreements with the Justice Department and the state Human Relations Commission, which were combined into one court order, found that the school district didn't violate any state or federal laws, said the district's general counsel, Michael Davis.
During a news conference yesterday, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said that the department plans to keep a watchful eye.
"We hope that this resolution makes it clear to the school district that the Department of Justice truly believes that students are entitled to be in a safe environment," he said, "and that need to take appropriate steps to ensure that safety.
The complaints, filed by the Asian American Legal Defense Fund after about 30 Asian students were injured in a series of attacks in and around the school Dec. 3, 2009, alleged that Asian immigrant students had been routinely harassed and subjected to "verbal abuse and physical attacks" as far back as 2007, and that school personnel failed to adequately address the problem.
The settlement agreement, which took effect yesterday and will remain in force until June 30, 2013, unless both sides agree to extend it, requires the school district to implement a plan to handle student harassment, provide translation services for students and parents, and hire a consultant who can review the district's harassment and discrimination policies.
The settlement also provides that the district may not retaliate against any student or employee who files a complaint alleging harassment.
Also as part of the agreement, the district will report to both the Justice Department and the PHRC, which are responsible for monitoring its progress in implementing the agreement. The Justice Department could ask a federal court to step in to enforce the agreement if it is violated.
In remarks to the SRC, PHRC Chairman Stephen Glassman said that the commission voted 7-0 to adopt the agreement.
"We look forward to working with you over the next several years to ensure that this is a lasting resolution to these problems that extends to the entire school district," Glassman said.
Earlier this year, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman hired retired Judge James T. Giles to investigate the incident. His report cleared school and district personnel of any wrongdoing, but was lambasted by critics as vague and incomplete.
He found that fights in and outside the school on Dec. 2 had sparked the series of attacks the next day on Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian students, mostly by black students and a Cambodian girl.
At least 20 students involved in the attacks were suspended, some of them transferred to disciplinary schools.
Helen Gym, of Asian Americans United, an advocate for the victimized students, said that it was the district's inaction against the anti-immigrant violence that spurred their efforts.
"The focus of our complaint was not about problematic young people," she said, "but about a School District that failed to do everything in its power to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for learning."
After the attacks, students and their supporters embarked on an unrelenting campaign, staging a walkout and a boycott that lasted eight days, garnering national and international support.
The district responded by boosting security in and around the building. Ackerman and Southern's principal, Otis Hackney, said that many services and programs already established at the school are in line with the agreement.
Wei Chen, secretary of the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia, and one of the student leaders in the boycott, said that he celebrates the victory but that he will continue his work to help future students.