In emotional testimony yesterday, Asian students described being victimized at South Philadelphia High for years, often as school staffers stood by, encouraged the attackers, or hurled racial slurs.
Duyngoc Truong, a South Philadelphia student who was beaten last week, told the School Reform Commission that being let down by those in charge "hurt our bodies, it also hurt our hearts. We have the right to go to school and we need to be treated fairly."
The meeting was a dramatic crescendo in a situation that began Dec. 2, school officials said, when a disabled African American student was beaten up by two Asian students outside school.
The next day, large groups of African American and Asian students attacked at least 30 Asian students, seven of whom required treatment at a hospital. Some of the attackers went from room to room, looking for students to target. District officials said the Thursday attacks were retaliatory, but Helen Gym, a board member of Asian American United, challenged that.
"By linking the two incidents, which involved two absolutely different sets of youth, the district seems to imply that there's an undercurrent of justification for what happened on Thursday," Gym said.
Officials announced last night that an outside investigator would probe what happened, beginning next week.
Six African American students and four Asian students have been suspended, and police and School District investigations are ongoing.
In her first remarks on the subject, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the South Philadelphia violence "is only a symptom of a more serious problem which has its roots in racism - not only in our schools, but in the larger community. It is the proverbial elephant in the room."
She warned the audience not to blame one racial group for the violence.
Ackerman said that the district had beefed up security in and around the school and formed a Task Force for Racial and Cultural Harmony to recommend changes, both at South Philadelphia and districtwide. A U.S. Department of Justice program will work with students on racial and ethnic issues, she said.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will also address the situation at a previously scheduled Dec. 21 meeting in Philadelphia.
About 200 Asian students and community supporters packed the meeting, waving signs that read "Stop School Violence" and "Grown-ups Let Us Down." More than a dozen testified, some through translators.
Fifty Asian students are boycotting South Philadelphia this week, investigating the incident and possible changes on their own.
Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United, said the attacks against Asian students were disturbing, but more so was the district's reaction, which she characterized as slow and defensive. Almost a week later, some students involved have still not been interviewed, Somekawa said.
"We have seen a total lack of moral leadership," Somekawa said.
District spokeswoman Evelyn Sample-Oates said the situation was complex and the investigation would be thorough.
"We're trying to get names," Sample-Oates said. "Many kids don't want to give names, which we understand."
Somekawa described students at the school being mocked by staff: " 'Where are you from? Hey, Chinese. Yo, Dragon Ball. Are you Bruce Lee? Speak English,' " quoting what students had told her.
Troung, the South Philadelphia student, recited a litany of problems with school staff. She singled out the security officers, who she claimed forced Asian students to follow them into a lunchroom where they were attacked and who directed the frightened students to leave school after they were beaten.
Yan Zheng, another student, said that when students were fighting in the lunch room last Thursday, "the lunch lady did not do anything to stop them, and went around cheering happily. . . . The staff shouldn't just stand there and watch and say, 'Stopping fights is not my job.' "
Duong Thang Ly said the school's security officers "are the big problem," saying they looked the other way when a group of African American students interrupted a lunch line and heckled a group of Asian students. They ignored groups of students as they roamed during class time, Ly said.
It's not just Asian students who are suffering, Truong said.
"Most of the students at South Philadelphia High School - Asian, African American, Latino and white - are just like us. They are trying to get an education in a school where they do not feel safe or respected," said Truong.
Xu Lin, a community organizer for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. who works closely with South Philadelphia students, said immigrant students are often not provided with appropriate language assistance when they report incidents.
"When Asian students report incidents, the school officials in the building often do not respond professionally," Lin said. "Many incidents went neglected."
Lin said South Philadelphia's new principal, LaGreta Brown, had been unresponsive to the Asian community.
Brown did not attend yesterday's meeting and has not been available to comment on the allegations.
Sample-Oates, the district spokeswoman, said all staff will be held accountable and disciplined if found culpable.
A New York civil rights attorney drew parallels to a 2004 situation at a Brooklyn school where Chinese immigrant students were attacked.
"The severe, rampant and unchecked nature of the racially motivated attacks against Asian students at South Philadelphia far exceeds what I have seen" in Brooklyn, testified Cecilia Chen, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.
The four commissioners listened to more than three hours of sometimes painful testimony. After several speakers said they felt the district had not appropriately apologized, Chairman Robert Archie Jr. said that the SRC and district "want to say we're sorry for the injuries that you sustained as a result of the incidents which took place in South Philadelphia. . . . We're going to move with all deliberate speed to try to address this issue."
Commissioner David F. Girard-diCarlo said he welcomed the outside investigation. "Clearly, from the comments that we received, we do need to evaluate the conduct of our adults to make sure that we have balanced appropriately where the problems really lie," he said.
In an interview, another commissioner, Johnny Irizarry, said the district needs to enforce a diversity policy adopted 15 years ago.
"Either we continue to live in sustaining or almost approving violence by not intervening," Irizarry said, "or we say, 'OK, this is the time that we make radical change.' "