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Can Philadelphia learn from Lafayette High?

NEW YORK - History teacher Patrick Compton is leafing through pages of the 1967 yearbook of Lafayette High School, alma mater of baseball great Sandy Koufax and broadcaster Larry King in a working-class enclave of Brooklyn.

After years of violence and other problems, Brooklyn's Lafayette High is being phased out, with its last class graduating in June.
After years of violence and other problems, Brooklyn's Lafayette High is being phased out, with its last class graduating in June.Read moreNew York Daily News

NEW YORK - History teacher Patrick Compton is leafing through pages of the 1967 yearbook of Lafayette High School, alma mater of baseball great Sandy Koufax and broadcaster Larry King in a working-class enclave of Brooklyn.

Only 11 of the faces are black or Asian. Picking up Lafayette's 2007 yearbook, Compton finds that Jewish and Italian names are nearly gone, replaced by faces of African Americans and immigrants from South Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America.

The ethnic sea change brought with it a spate of violence against Asian students by non-Asian classmates remarkably similar to the unrest and painful divisions plaguing South Philadelphia High.

"As neighborhoods change, schools have to change, and unless they address the needs of a new population systemically, the problems are just going to be reflected back into the schools and repeat themselves," says Compton, a resident of Burlington Township, who has spent 24 years teaching in the cavernous brick building in Bensonhurst, a densely populated area of semidetached two-family homes 16 miles from Midtown Manhattan.

Compton, who has been following events at South Philadelphia High, worries that lessons from Lafayette will be lost. "You can't just address this school by school."

Like Bensonhurst, the neighborhood surrounding South Philadelphia High has experienced radical population shifts in recent years, absorbing a steady influx of immigrants from China and Vietnam, and it is now 70 percent African American and 18 percent Asian.

As investigations into violence against Asian immigrants at South Philadelphia High continue, the school may find some disturbing parallels with Lafayette, which earned the nickname "Horror High" after about two dozen assaults in 2002, including the beating of valedictorian Siukwo Cheng.

The Justice Department investigated, leading a federal court in Brooklyn two years later to find "severe and pervasive" harassment of Asian students at Lafayette.

School officials looked the other way while students threw food, cans, and even metal locks at Asian students, the court found, and it ordered Lafayette to address each case of violence and discrimination and investigate all reports of harassment. The school was also ordered to improve services for English-language learners and provide translation into Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian, Creole, and Urdu.

The court order brought small improvements over the next two years, but violence continued. High turnover in leadership and a plummeting graduation rate finally led the New York City Department of Education to phase Lafayette out. In June, the neighborhood landmark, which had teemed with as many as 4,500 students in the days when the Brooklyn Dodgers called Ebbets Field home and kids played stickball in the streets, will graduate its last class.

Lafayette's painful demise poses questions for South Philadelphia High about what might heal divisions there.

"You can't just address these issues with security guards or cops in schools," says Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University. "They need to create a sense of inclusion, so all kids feel like part of the community."

That was not the case at South Philadelphia High, where 13 Asian students were sent to a hospital after violence Dec. 3 that triggered a seven-day student boycott. In interviews, Asian students said they did not feel safe, and a report released in February by a retired federal judge found "race and ethnicity" were contributing factors.

Cecilia Chen, a staff lawyer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), finds "striking similarities" between the violence at Lafayette, where the group closely monitored the 2004 court order, and South Philadelphia High. Chen hopes the Justice Department's investigation of South Philadelphia High will result in court action as it did at Lafayette.

In January, the AALDEF filed a civil-rights complaint alleging "deliberate indifference" to harassment complaints against Asian students.

Lafayette and South Philadelphia High "ignored signs that violence against Asian students was increasing and, despite repeated calls and pressure from community groups, refused to acknowledge that there was a problem," Chen told the Philadelphia School Reform Commission in December.

If the school wants to improve relations among ethnic groups, it must start by listening to students, which did not initially happen at Lafayette, says Steve Chung, copresident of the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn.

New immigrant students also need to learn how to defend themselves and recognize harassment, says Vincci Tai, who graduated from Lafayette in 2009; by that time the school was 43 percent African American, 23 percent Asian, and 24 percent Latino. Tai, a college freshman, says Asian immigrants "were afraid to fight back and afraid of getting into trouble."

Tai recently spoke to students at South Philadelphia. "I told them it's important to speak out and raise awareness," she says, "so this doesn't happen again."

At both schools, students and community leaders complained that the principal would not listen. At South Philadelphia in the fall, LaGreta Brown became the school's fourth principal in five years. She has declined to discuss the December violence or the report's findings, but defended her efforts to provide safety and order.

At Lafayette, the students - who received training and guidance from AALDEF, federal officials, and community groups - ultimately did the most to improve race relations, says Richard Mangone, a social-studies teacher and union representative.

"We had a strong group of youth," he says. "They organized, they asked for change, and they were clear in what they wanted from the adults."

Lafayette students gained confidence after the 2005 appointment of Iris Chiu as the school's first Asian administrator, Mangone recalls. Chiu spent her early months listening to students' concerns and urging different groups to learn more about one another, including their tastes in food, dance, and music.

But a year after the court intervened, change remained elusive at Lafayette. Students continued to complain of harassment during the 2004-05 school year. A freshman was beaten after school while waiting for a train; another student was choked by a classmate in the locker room. In other cases, students did not report incidents because they had no confidence in the school's ability to respond or to interview witnesses, says Khin Mai Aung, a staff lawyer at AALDEF.

Problems at Lafayette went deeper than violence. Asian immigrants complained they were not placed in classes for English-language learners and did not have access to guidance counselors. They had trouble enrolling in the courses required for graduation and could not get translation or interpretation services as required by law.

Connie Cuttle, director of professional development for the Office of School and Youth Development in New York City schools, says complaints went up after the 2004 court order in part because of better security and reporting of incidents.

Cuttle says the most important lesson learned at Lafayette is the need for social and emotional learning, which improves academics. But those lessons came too late for Lafayette, which is being replaced with small, themed academies.

Assistant principal Chiu savors small victories, including the progress of an immigrant student who stayed and won a full scholarship to Columbia University. Asian students at the time were afraid of African American students because they had no understanding of their culture, she recalls. And African American kids mimicked Asian students, making fun of the way they spoke, until they got to know them better.

A breakthrough came during one of many late nights at the school, amid preparations for a multicultural celebration in 2006.

"A security guard turned to me and said, 'I have been working in this building for more than 20 years, and this is the first time I have ever seen black and Asian students working together,' " Chiu recalls.

On the night of the celebration, 300 watched as Chinese New Year's celebrations and tai-chi sword demonstrations mingled with African dance, rap, and hip-hop. Lafayette alumnus and recent college graduate Siukwo Cheng, the valedictorian who had been beaten unconscious in 2002, sat in the audience.

Cheng "turned to me and said there had never been this type of cultural show when he was there," recalls Aung, the lawyer.

Aung wants students in South Philadelphia to stop seeing themselves as victims. "There are already student organizers who are active, but they can be trained to document incidents and really hold the district accountable for their actions."

At Lafayette, few ethnic tensions remain - because the school is almost empty. Compton and Mangone sometimes teach just two or three students a day. Compton wonders whether any lessons from Lafayette might help, not just at South Philadelphia High, but everywhere. "How is Philadelphia defending the rights of every student in their system?" he wonders. "That's what matters."