More than 50 Asian students stayed away from South Philadelphia High yesterday, as they will all week - a boycott, they said, of the school's unsafe conditions and the district's failure to deal with long-standing violence between racial groups.
School district officials, the students say, are downplaying attacks last week on about 30 Asian students and aren't taking the problem seriously.
"They promise and promise," said Duong Ly, one of the school's 900 students. "Last year, same problem, and nothing changes."
He hates to miss any school, but "we didn't come to America to fight," Ly said. "But we go to the bathroom, and we get attacked."
Michael Silverman, the regional superintendent who oversees South Philadelphia, acknowledged long-standing racial tensions, but he said that since summer the efforts of a new administration at the school had calmed things somewhat. Even before the latest violence, efforts included community meetings and mediation sessions.
Officials said last night that they erred last week in saying violence was down at the school. A district spokesman said that through the end of November, assaults were up by 32 percent, to 37 this year, and overall violence was up by 5 percent, with 43 total attacks this year.
Attacks on Asian students were down by 38 percent - there were five this year through the end of November, and eight last year, September through November. These numbers don't include last week's violence.
The district takes all the attacks seriously, Silverman said.
After a series of fights between Asian and African American students in the community last week, about 30 Asian students were attacked in and outside the school on Thursday. In some cases, groups of students went from class to class, looking for Asian students to target.
Seven students were treated for minor injuries at Methodist Hospital. Ten students have been suspended with the intent to expel; no arrests have been made, though charges are pending, police officials said.
It's too soon to tell whether the attacks will be investigated as hate crimes, a spokeswoman said.
South Philadelphia High educates many immigrant students. About 70 percent of its students are African American, 18 percent are Asian, 6 percent are white, and 5 percent are Latino. Those who are boycotting say immigrants are often targeted at the school.
"Our English is limited. We can't speak English fluently like them. They don't like us because we are Asian," said Ly.
"They say, 'Go back to your country,' " said Wei Chen, president of the South Philadelphia High Chinese American Student Association, a group he organized last year in response to the school's violence.
Ly and Chen said they and the other boycotters would spend the week studying; holding meetings with parents, other students, and community leaders; and trying to find solutions for the long-standing issues at the school. They will also address the School Reform Commission at its meeting tomorrow.
Students participating in the boycott will have excused absences if their parents write notes explaining the absences, a district spokesman said.
In meetings, the district has promised action against offenders, plus more security cameras and more police protection. There will be meetings with parents and community members - some of which were scheduled before the violence last week - and a U.S. Department of Justice mediation program.
Yesterday, Silverman said, the school's five counselors went from room to room talking about students' fears. A weekly program where students from all groups meet with administrators to discuss safety concerns will continue, he said.
"We have also talked about diversity training for the adults in the building and the kids," Silverman said.
The students dismissed the changes as quick fixes that don't solve the school's problems.
Student protesters said they didn't think the district was adequately investigating Thursday's attacks, and said they wanted a formal acknowledgment of the seriousness of last week's attacks and an apology.
"How can they investigate when they didn't even interview us?" asked Ly, who witnessed the violence. "We are the victims. We are the witnesses. They never interviewed us."
Silverman said he would be meeting with the students last night and would personally take their statements. He said that there was additional security at the school yesterday, as there would be for some time.
Students don't feel safe, Ly and Chen said, in part because some adults in the building have ignored their fears.
"What I need to get from the kids are specific people and incidents," Silverman said. "Everybody will be held accountable, both children and adults."
The district's inquiry will include the response of the school's security staff, he said.
As school let out yesterday, a few Asian students talked about their experiences.
"They're scared to come to school, said Meihui Liu, 19, a 10th grader. "I'm scared, too."
Liu emphasized that there has been a continuing racial problem at school. In the past, she said, Asian students were allowed to stay in classrooms if they were too scared to leave. But now many don't feel the school itself is safe.
Asian students routinely are attacked and their money is stolen, others said. Some don't report the violence for fear of reprisal or because they don't trust staff.
Still, some African American students interviewed said Asian students were not completely innocent. Several said they believed last week's violence stemmed from an earlier fight in the community when an Asian student jumped a black student.
In an Inquirer interview yesterday, Mayor Nutter said he was being briefed on the situation by his staff, and he expressed support for principal LaGreta Brown.
Still, he said, "any kind of violence, certainly race-based violence, is completely unacceptable."
And while the boycotters hope for long-term solutions, some at South Philadelphia High aren't optimistic. Senior Danni Glenn, 17, said the tensions were too deeply rooted.
"It's been going on for years," Glenn said. "Now it's getting bigger and bigger."
Whatever the school or other authorities have planned to stop the violence, Glenn said, "it's not going to stop anything."