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Asian students back at school, seeking peace

Throughout Tuesday night's meeting with Asian students, immersed in a tense boycott of South Philadelphia High School after racial attacks, district Superintendent Arlene Ackerman told the youths they must come back to class.

Throughout Tuesday night's meeting with Asian students, immersed in a tense boycott of South Philadelphia High School after racial attacks, district Superintendent Arlene Ackerman told the youths they must come back to class.

At different points, participants said yesterday, she took different tacks:

She urged them to come back. She ordered them to come back. She warned them they had better come back.

Finally, as the meeting wound toward an end, two hours after it started, she appealed to them to come back.

An Asian student stood up: Yes, they would return to school.

It was a quiet conclusion to a bristly meeting at the Chinese Christian Church in Chinatown, one that put an end to the contentious eight-day boycott. The walkout followed the Dec. 3 attack on about 30 Asian students by a group of mostly African American classmates, which made national headlines and got the school and district leadership skewered for their failure to address long-standing allegations of racial violence.

In an interview yesterday, Ackerman characterized the end of the Tuesday night summit differently, saying she had taken a hard line.

"I said to the students, 'You must come to school tomorrow. This is it. If you're not going to come back to South Philly, we'll help you transfer to another school. But this option of staying out of school is not an option.' "

About 50 Asian students had pledged not to return until they were sure they would be safe at school. Officials promised more security cameras, extra school police officers, and diversity training.

But district officials were reluctant even yesterday to admit that they had failed the students, seven of whom went to hospitals.

In remarks to the School Reform Commission, Ackerman said she "deeply apologized" for the emotional harm to students and staff, but complained that the district "has now been asked to single-handedly solve the problems of violence and racial discord."

She lashed out at the media, saying students and staff saw coverage of the attack as "an unfair telling of their story."

She praised the Chinatown gathering as "a great meeting," where students shared "feelings about the school and the kinds of changes they want to see happen. It was a very powerful evening."

Not everyone agreed.

Xu Lin, a community organizer with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said students had asked Ackerman what would happen to the school staff who failed to protect them Dec. 3 and who had ignored prior complaints of assaults.

Ackerman would not promise any changes, he said.

A key student demand was for a meeting with school staff, everyone from cafeteria workers to teachers, to discuss racial bias and understanding.

"It's really important," said Duong Nghe Ly, a 17-year-old junior who is Vietnamese, "because if we're able to meet with the staff, we can tell them how we felt about what happened, and how they need to change their attitude so it won't happen again."

Asian students have reported that staffers disparage them with comments such as, "Yo, Dragon Ball," and "Hey, Chinese."

But on Tuesday, Ackerman did not promise that would occur, which left Asian community representatives to weigh what had been won or lost by the boycott.

One thing that's clearly changed, they said, is that the eyes of the region have fixed on South Philadelphia High School. The people in charge of the school and the district know that they're being watched and judged by students, parents, government officials, and news media.

Initially, Ackerman had refused to meet with the students unless they returned to school. She insisted they would have to meet at South Philadelphia High, without adult Asian advocates.

In the end, Ackerman went to them, in Chinatown, with community leaders present and participating.

Ackerman said her goal was to have other students present, kids of all races from the school's Ambassadors program. Once that was assured, it didn't matter where the meeting was held, she said.

Plainly, participants said, the Asian students succeeded in making their concerns known to the administration. And they had won a meeting with the superintendent, to tell her exactly how they felt and what they wanted.

"What they realized at the end was that they had created a community that was there to ensure their safety, and would fight for them," said Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, an advocacy group.

But the students made compromises, too. They had insisted they would not return until their safety was assured. But as the stalemate went on, discussion and at times confusion ensued over when and how the boycott would end.

Some students felt pressed by their parents, many of them recent immigrants who believed their children were missing out on the very benefit that helped drive them to this country: an education.

The school applied pressure as well, students said. Their parents were being called at home and told their children were "illegally absent."

Some students went back to class Tuesday, others yesterday. "The first day was OK," said Wei Chen, president of the school Chinese American student association, who returned Tuesday. "I'm not sure about next week, next year."

On Tuesday night, about 30 to 40 Asian students attended, as did about 10 African American students. Members of both groups talked about race and responsibility, and agreed to meet again soon.

Ackerman said yesterday that part of the problem had been "an artificial divide that was put up by some of the adults."

After visiting the school yesterday morning, she said, she wanted to pass along a message from the students: "Adults, get out of the way and let the healing begin."

Ackerman on S. Phila. High Principal

Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said last night that "the jury's out" on South Philadelphia High School principal LaGreta Brown.

Brown, who started her job in September, has been criticized for her handling of the beating of about 30 Asian students Dec. 3.

Brown had a rocky tenure as a principal in Atlantic City. She resigned there before a school board vote to fire her.

In an interview, Ackerman said she had been aware of Brown's past before Brown's hiring.

If Brown is unable to do the job, Ackerman will "then make appropriate changes as necessary."

"The jury's out as far as I'm concerned, until I get the investigator's report and until I have an opportunity along with her immediate supervisor to assess her performance as a principal," Ackerman said.   - Kristen A. Graham