City and School District officials met this morning with Philadelphia's Human Relations Commission in an effort to address racial and ethnic tensions at South Philadelphia High School.
Asian students who are boycotting the school over safety concerns and their families had been invited but did not take part in the closed-door session at the Curtis Center.
The meeting lasted 2-1/2 hours. After it ended, participants declined to share details about the discussion or any recommendations, but said the session was positive and productive.
"This was a very good beginning to a long process," said Kay Kyungsun Yu, the rights commission's chairwoman.
Among those taking part in the meeting were Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and LaGreta Brown, the high school's principal.
Afterward, Ackerman said, "A friend of mine once said, and I really do believe this, when children fail . . . adults have let them down."
Finding solutions is a shared responsibility, she said.
"It's a systems failure, both inside and outside the school system," she said.
"This is not just a school district issue. This a community issue, and we're going to work together on behalf of children."
"If they're not feeling safe," she continued, "if they don't feel that they get a great education, if they feel that the quality of education is different depending on where a child goes to school, all of that is unacceptable."
The meeting followed a weekend during which officials with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund said they would file a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The suit would accuse the School District of failing to address violence against Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School.
Calling this morning's meeting was an effort to open "a dialogue and avoid any litigation," Yu had said.
Asian students began the boycott last week in response to a Dec. 3 incident during which a group of mostly black students attacked Asian immigrant students.
Many of the immigrant students do not speak English and officials says language also is an underlying element of the conflict.
On Friday, Ackerman and Brown announced a series of steps aimed at increasing security and easing tensions at the school.
South Philadelphia High School has long reflected the tensions of a larger neighborhood that has dramatically changed from the days when it was known as Philadelphia's Little Italy.
According to the district's Web site, South Philadelphia High School's 1,175 students are 70 percent African American, 5.6 percent white, 18.3 percent Asian, and 5.2 percent Latino.
Between 1990 and 2000, according to city Planning Commission data, South Philadelphia saw the largest increase - almost doubling - in the number of Asian residents of any Philadelphia neighborhood.
City officials have said that trend accelerated over the last decade with a dramatic influx of immigrants from China, Cambodia and Vietnam. With the city's traditional Chinatown in Center City hemmed in by development and a lack of affordable housing, South Philadelphia has become the location of what some call "Chinatown South."
Even before the Dec. 3 incident, the city Human Relations Commission had been planning to respond to the growing tension within the high school, working with the U.S. Justice Department to conduct a SPIRIT program - Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together - targeting problems of racism and violence.
According to Rue Landau, the commission's executive director, the commission and the Justice Department had been planning the program for almost a year and had scheduled the two-day program at South Philadelphia High School for Dec. 8 and 9.
The program was canceled, Landau said, because of the walkout by Asian immigrant students after the Dec. 3 incident.