A state panel has voted to investigate allegations of racial discrimination against immigrant students at South Philadelphia High, the second such independent probe.
The Pennsylvania Commission of Human Relations' inquiry could expand to examine bias against immigrants throughout the Philadelphia School District, said Stephen A. Glassman, chair of the commission.
The commission voted to open the probe on Monday night - after a private meeting with district officials and a public session where community members said students still felt targeted at the school. Work began on the case yesterday, commission officials said.
"We wanted to respond with immediacy to what we thought were really urgent pleas from the students and their advocates," Glassman said last night.
He said that although the commission had drawn no conclusions, it felt strongly that it could not stand by.
"We heard that this is systemic, it's long-standing, it's been going on for years if not decades, and it's felt by the community that this is a pattern of acquiescence to if not support of violence against people who don't speak English well," Glassman said. "We understand that while this might be perpetrated against Asian Americans today, there has been a history with African immigrants, Caribbean immigrants, all kinds of immigrants."
If it finds that the district violated the state's antidiscrimination law, the commission could impose sanctions. It could also sue the district.
The commission was the lead plaintiff in a desegregation case against the school district that stretched on for decades and was finally settled this summer.
Glassman cited the testimony of Michelle Nguyen, who works for Boat People SOS-Delaware Valley, an organization that aids Vietnamese immigrants. Nguyen read to the commission a statement from students who were attacked at the school on Dec. 3.
"We are targeted because we are Asian immigrants," Nguyen read. "Every day we face taunts and violence. It hurts when we are attacked by other students. It hurts more when school staff ignore, deny, or cover up the racial attacks against us."
The fears remain, Nguyen said, even after a seven-day boycott, a private meeting with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, and initiatives from the school district - from more police officers and counselors to diversity training for students and staff.
Others testified that administrators at the school had failed to provide adequate translation and support services. One speaker said the school's English for Speakers of Other Languages program was being targeted.
At the meeting, Glassman said the commission would look into those issues. "I would like to suggest to the staff that this be given very high priority," he said.
Urgency is key, Nguyen said.
"Every day that goes by, these students are still afraid," she testified Monday. "They cannot focus on their education."
Commissioner Sylvia A. Waters agreed that speed was necessary.
"This is a very dangerous situation," Waters said at the meeting.
The commission's investigation will be the second independent probe of the South Philadelphia High tensions. The school district has hired a retired federal judge to look into the situation. His report is due next month.
A district spokeswoman, Evelyn Sample-Oates, said the district welcomed the commission's investigation.
On Jan. 5, commissioners and staff will meet privately with advocates from the community, Glassman said. Shortly thereafter, a public hearing will be held, with students, advocates, and district staff present.
Glassman said he had confidence the district would be cooperative.
"I still have great faith in Dr. Ackerman," he said. "I think she's inherited a laundry list of incredible challenges with this school system. I hope we continue to have a collaborative relationship."