The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund said yesterday that it would file a federal civil rights complaint accusing the Philadelphia School District of failing to address violence against Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School.
The complaint will claim that the district violated the students' right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment, said Cecilia Chen, a staff attorney with the organization.
Chen said the complaint would be filed with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
The news came on a day when the city schools chief and South Philadelphia High principal spoke out publicly for the first time since the Dec. 3 attacks on about 30 Asian students by large groups of students, most African American. They announced new security measures and diversity programs.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman also said she would not agree to a demand from the Asian community that she meet with students and parents at a neutral location, and with activists present.
Instead, she said, the students should return to school, and she will meet with only them and their parents.
"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 leaders separately, but not just with leaders of Asian communities.
"We're not going to continue to make this an Asian vs. African American thing," said Ackerman. "This is not just about demands of one racial group. It is about the needs of everyone."
Wei Chen, an 18-year-old senior who is president of the Chinese American Student Association, said students were not willing to meet with Ackerman at the high school because "we think it is not safe for us to go back." The students have not yet decided whether to return to school on Monday.
"We are not seeking a problem," he said, speaking in Mandarin. "We just want the school to improve, and we want a safe school."
Ackerman suggested the attacks were being sensationalized by the media, and urged the community to stop assigning blame and move forward.
During yesterday's press conference, Ackerman was surrounded by some 50 student leaders of all races whom she described as "the real face of South Philadelphia High."
Helen Gym, a board member of Asian American United working with the victims, later took issue with Ackerman's statement.
"Does that mean that the children who've been hurt, beaten, and are afraid to come to school are not real faces? It's no wonder that the students feel invisible and unheard," Gym said.
Also at the news conference, Ackerman and some South Philadelphia students said that 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," Ackerman said.
Ackerman and principal LaGreta Brown said a host of fixes were planned.
Among the steps being taken: installing 63 new cameras by Jan. 4, including 21 to be put in place this weekend; adding a school, Philadelphia and SEPTA police presence; adding an administrator, retired principal Ozzie Wright, who has helped district schools in crisis over the last several years; beginning diversity training for students; and implementing a U.S. 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. An outside investigator will look into the incident, which the district said was in retaliation for the beating the day before of a severely disabled African American student by Asian students.
Also investigating are the district and Philadelphia police. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will hear testimony on Dec. 21.
"The safety and security of all our students that attend this school are my first priority," said Brown, who is new to the district.
Brown said she would not tolerate staffers making negative comments to students. Several of the students who are boycotting the school said South Philadelphia staff stood by while they were being attacked and, in some cases, taunted them.
It was unclear yesterday precisely what the students' demands were.
Students said they wanted staff changes at the school, but were not willing to identify anyone. They said some staffers must change their attitudes toward Asian students.
Asian community leaders said they wanted education officials to accept responsibility for the school's poor performance. The school has failed to meet state standards for several years and is considered "persistently dangerous" under federal law.
"The problem at South Philadelphia High School goes to the leadership of the school, and the leadership at the school district," said Gym.
Student Duc Le, 17, said that parents of Asian students were being called at home and told their children were "illegally absent." Others said the word illegal can be upsetting to newly arrived immigrants who may be undocumented.
"The school has called home to pressure our parents to put pressure on us to return to school," he said. "I don't want to return to school."
Parent Anh Tan, speaking in Vietnamese, said her senior-year son is afraid after being orally threatened - and she doesn't want him going back to school right now.
"I worry about the safety of my child," she said. "Nobody from the school or anywhere has called my home to explain the situation."