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Annette John-Hall: Weak response to school beatings

Beaten and still bruised, physically and otherwise - but here to tell about it - Asian students from South Philadelphia High met this week with School District administrators.

Beaten and still bruised, physically and otherwise - but here to tell about it - Asian students from South Philadelphia High met this week with School District administrators.

In one emotional testimony after another, they described the brutal beatings they endured a week ago in and near the school. The father of Chaofel Zheng raised his son's shirt to show a bruise from the assault, just in case the teen's black eye weren't evidence enough.

"I hope," Zheng said, "that security will put more care into us."

About 150 student supporters carried signs. But one sign said it all: "Grown-ups let us down."

Grown-ups like the cafeteria workers who allegedly turned their backs on the fighting.

And the security guards who made the victims leave school property - even though the students feared the walk home. And rightly so.

And the adult staffers at the school who allegedly made fun of them frequently.

They can add one more grown-up to the list.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, I'm sorry to say.

Yes, I'm talking about you, Superintendent. Especially after your slow response and dismissive performance at the meeting in front of the hurt and outraged students - your students - and parents who hoped for more from you.

Since you were hired 20 months ago, you've said the right things. Made big pronouncements about how you were going to make your administration more user-friendly. Vowed to put the children first and make school safety a top priority.

And judging from the way you talked, it seemed that grown-up accountability - you know, the process of holding adults responsible for their actions or inactions - was the one thing you were committed to enforcing.

"We've got plenty of accountability for the students that we serve and not nearly enough for the adults who serve them," you said then.

So what did you say, Superintendent, when so-called responsible adults didn't intervene as a rogue group of African American students attacked Asian schoolmates so severely that many had to seek hospital treatment?

You linked the assaults to retaliation for an unwarranted attack off campus on a disabled black student by two Asian students the day before.

But how do you explain that these Asian students have been victimized for the last 18 months? Or that this time, random Asian students were targeted, as one community activist pointed out?

"We don't have to get into a back-and-forth about that," you responded.

Well, then. You know those sensitivity classes you're talking about?

Adult abuses

Chinese and Vietnamese students, some of whom have been here for only a few months and barely speak English, courageously described, in excruciating detail, how they've been relentlessly teased and taunted by adult support staffers. "Hey, Chinese." "Hey, Dragon Ball." "Yo, Bruce Lee. Where are you from? Speak English."

You don't have to wonder why 50 students have boycotted classes since Monday at a school where some adults allegedly condone such ignorant actions. I can't say I'd send my own kid back under those conditions.

We all know the problem can't be solved in a day.

Still, it would have eased the students' hurt if, Ms. Ackerman, you at least genuinely showed that you cared.

It's bad enough that you waited four days to publicly respond to a gang attack at one of your schools. But it was even worse on Wednesday, watching you sit there dispassionately, as though you were listening to your voice mails, when students asked for an apology.

You know, a simple but powerful gesture that says, " 'I'm sorry that this happened to you, I'm sorry for the slow response time, I'm sorry that we have not stood with you earlier,' " said Ellen Somekawa of Asian Americans United.

Which is the human thing to do.

But how did you, the chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District, respond?

With silence. Defensive, deafening silence.

And then, you didn't take questions afterward.

Finally, an apology

At least School Reform Commission Chairman Robert Archie took the cue and apologized to the students "on behalf of the SRC."

Look, Dr. Ackerman. I realize you've taken some action - hired an outside investigator, increased security, suspended some of the kids involved, and put together a task force to get to the root of the problem. It's no more than any good administrator would and should do.

And you do recognize the problem is bigger than South Philly High. You said it yourself. The violence "is only the symptom of a more serious problem which has its roots in racism. . . . It is the proverbial elephant in the room."

Most leaders would not have been so forthright.

But you have to realize that all of the investigative findings, sensitivity training, and task forces for racial and cultural harmony won't quickly solve the problems at a persistently dangerous school where violence is up 32 percent under a new principal.

And that's violence against everyone - black, white, Latino, and Asian.

It takes a bold pronouncement on your part, a swift apology on behalf of the district and an unwavering vow that any kind of violence against any of your students will not be tolerated, to send a universal message, one understood in any language.

You shouldn't have to have your hand forced before you take that stand.

Just think if it had been one of your children.