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S. Philly principal, Ackerman speak out on racial tensions

In her first public comments on the racial tension and violence at South Philadelphia High, the school's principal today said she was "very disappointed and upset at last week's fights and racism."

In her first public comments on the racial tension and violence at South Philadelphia High, the school's principal today said she was "very disappointed and upset at last week's fights and racism."

LaGreta Brown apologized to those hurt in the fights, and said she will "establish a culture where the entire student body feels like one big family."

The announcement came at a news conference outlining new security measures at the 900-student school, rocked last week by racial violence.

Among the steps being taken are: installing 63 new cameras by Jan. 4, including 21 to be put in place this weekend; adding school, Philadelphia and SEPTA police presence; adding a new administrator, retired principal Ozzie Wright, who has helped district schools in crisis over the past several years; beginning diversity training for students; and implementing a federal Department of Justice program to deal with racial issues.

The school also will add counselors and bilingual translators and re-launch a home and school association. In addition, an outside investigation of the Dec. 3 incident where about 30 Asian students were victimized by large groups of mostly African American students begins Monday.

"The safety and security of all our students that attend this school are my first priority," said Brown, who is new to the district. "You have my promise that I will do everything in my power to prevent acts of violence during my tenure as principal of South Philadelphia High School."

She said she would not tolerate staffers making negative comments to students. Several of the students who are now boycotting the school said that South Philadelphia staff stood by while they were being attacked and, in some cases, taunted them.

Though steps are being taken immediately, Brown warned there are no quick fixes to a problem that has existed at the school for a long time.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, in her first visit to the school since the attacks, urged the community to stop assigning blame and start moving forward.

She also said the problems at the school should not be cast as one ethnic group against another.

South Philadelphia students said the problem was more a cultural one - those who speak English not understanding those who don't.

"This is something that happened to other students over time - last week, the other month, last year. We have to help them change that," she said.

She said she would be at the school on Monday and would have private conversations with Asian students and their parents. She said she would not honor community organizers' requests to meet off-site with the students and with the activists present.

"I will be here to have private conversations with the students and their families," Ackerman said. "I do not intend to have conversations with community leaders."

She said she would meet with the community leaders separately, but not just with Asian community leaders.

"We're not going to continue to make this an Asian versus African American thing," said Ackerman. "This is not just about demands of one racial group. It is about the needs of everyone."

Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United helping to organize the students, said the boycotting students want to share with Ackerman the plan they've come up with this week, but they don't feel safe at the school, and they want to bring those who have aided them.

"It feels deliberately disempowering," said Gym.

Gym said the students have not yet decided whether they will return to school on Monday. She also said the group is also troubled by calls to students' parents, which began after Wednesday's School Reform Commission meeting, at which the teenagers gave emotional testimony about conditions at the school.

"Since the SRC hearing, they've been getting repeated phone calls saying that their children are absent and they have to come back to school," said Gym.

The students' absences will be considered excused if they bring notes from their parents, Brown said. She said some Asian students had already returned to school.