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South Philadelphia High aide who protected students from attack is laid off

When South Philadelphia High School exploded in racial violence on Dec. 3, community liaison Violet Sutton-Lawson twice risked serious injury to protect Asian students who were being beaten by mobs.

Community-liaison Violet Sutton-Lawson (inset) helped Asian students being attacked. Also pictured is Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. (Bonnie Weller and April Saul / Staff Photographers)
Community-liaison Violet Sutton-Lawson (inset) helped Asian students being attacked. Also pictured is Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. (Bonnie Weller and April Saul / Staff Photographers)Read more

When South Philadelphia High School exploded in racial violence on Dec. 3, community liaison Violet Sutton-Lawson twice risked serious injury to protect Asian students who were being beaten by mobs.

She was disappointed that School District officials never sent her so much as a thank-you note.

This week, they sent her something else: A layoff notice.

"I put my life in danger," an angry, disbelieving Sutton-Lawson said in an interview. "They just laid me right off."

Sutton-Lawson, who worked with pregnant students and teenage mothers, was bumped from her job by seniority rules, among 61 support staffers who were laid off to save money and consolidate duties.

Eleven community-relations jobs were eliminated, said spokesperson Evelyn Sample-Oates. But some of those employees had seniority that allowed them to displace other workers. Sutton-Lawson's job at South Philadelphia High will be filled by one of those longer-tenured workers.

"It's unfortunate," Sample-Oates said. "Ms. Sutton-Lawson is welcome to apply for another position with the district."

Sutton-Lawson earned about $36,000 a year, barely a decimal point in the $3.2 billion school budget but crucial to a woman who doesn't own a car and lives in a tough area on Wharton Street.

The slashing of those 61 jobs from the payroll has been controversial because the move largely targeted employees who focus on student safety. Laid off with the 11 community-relations workers were 17 nonteaching assistants and 33 climate managers, who help keep schools calm.

It was not immediately clear how much the job cuts would save the district.

A teachers' union official criticized the layoffs.

"They laid off the lowest-paid people in the district at a time when you read about bonuses for top administrators and additional people in the superintendent's cabinet," said Arlene Kempin, a vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

"Clearly," Kempin said of Sutton-Lawson, "this is a lady who has put the kids first. It doesn't seem like the district does."

Sutton-Lawson, 58, said she was saddened and surprised to lose her job, particularly given her actions on Dec. 3. That day, about 30 Asian students were attacked during a daylong series of assaults carried out by groups of mostly African American students.

Sutton-Lawson, who is African American, said that in her job she sees only children, not color.

The violence spawned national headlines, a request from the government of Vietnam that Vietnamese students be protected, and investigations by the School District, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and the U.S. Justice Department.

The district responded by adding security staff and programming, and spending $685,000 to install 126 more security cameras.

The official district report on the violence said that several adults had tried to stop the assaults and help students, and that Sutton-Lawson was particularly courageous.

On Friday, Sutton-Lawson said that after Dec. 3, she had expected to hear from ranking district officials or even Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

"I'm nothing to them," she said. "Dr. Ackerman never recognized me, never sent me a letter, never a word of thank you, never shook my hand and said thank you."

Sutton-Lawson said she learned she had lost her job from a June 9 letter signed by Estelle Matthews, the district's chief talent and development officer. It said her job was being eliminated because of a reduction in staff and she would not be paid after June 30.

She had just completed her second year at Southern, as the school is known, providing a variety of support to pregnant students and teenage mothers so they may get their diplomas. She worked in a program called ELECT, an acronym for Education Leading to Employment and Career Training.

On Dec. 3, at 12:31, she was drawn from her basement classroom to the hallway, where she saw an Asian student sprawled on the floor, being beaten by a mob. Sutton-Lawson dove into the crowd, wrapped her arms around the boy, then glared up at the eight to 10 attackers.

Two minutes later, in the cafeteria, she stepped in front of a group that was punching and kicking a group of other Asian students.

Sutton-Lawson said she was disappointed she had received no warning that her job was in jeopardy.

"The bottom line: I'm doing my job, and doing pretty good. What is this madness?"