The Philadelphia School District on Wednesday agreed to strict guidelines on protecting South Philadelphia High students from racial bias, and said it would submit to federal and state oversight on its progress.
The U.S. Justice Department in July notified officials that based on its investigation, the district had deprived Asian students at the school of equal protection "by remaining deliberately indifferent to known instances of severe and pervasive student-on-student harassment of Asian students based on their race, color, and/or national origin."
District officials denied those findings, but chose to reach a settlement to avoid further legal action. The School Reform Commission ratified the agreement with the Justice Department and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission on Wednesday.
At the commission meeting, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the accord shows "just how vitally important it is that everyone be treated with dignity and respect," and recognizes "lessons learned and the tremendous steps that the students, teachers, principals, and staff have taken over the past year."
In settling the claims filed by Asian students and their advocates, the district agreed to a range of provisions, including language on how racial harassment complaints must be taken and investigated, translation services for immigrant students and their parents, and required annual training for staff.
Student leader Wei Chen said his community "did not want money or lawsuits. What we wanted was a clear statement that what had been happening at our school was wrong in the eyes of the federal government."
Both Chen and Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, said the pact proved that the attacks and harassment were racially motivated. District officials, they said, had tried to pin blame elsewhere.
In an interview, Thomas E. Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, commended activists "like Wei Chen and others who came forward" as "real heroes."
South Philadelphia High exploded Dec. 3, 2009, when 30 Asians were attacked during a daylong series of assaults carried out by mostly African American students.
The attacks triggered a boycott and the formal complaints. Those complaints were folded into the consent decree, which was filed Wednesday in federal court and will be in effect until June 2013.
Both the Justice Department and the Human Relations Commission will be watching. The court order calls for monitoring by both agencies, periodic reports on the district's progress, and an outside consultant to recommend improvements.
Perez said the agreement gave the department a road map to root out harassment in other school districts.
Instances of bullying and harassment are on the upswing, Perez said, and in the future, "our goal is not to come in after the train wreck to pick up the pieces," but to prevent problems.
Zane David Memeger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, promised at a news conference that the Justice Department would "step in to make sure that school districts ensure a safe environment" for students facing harassment and bullying.
That the Justice Department had to intervene at all drew criticism.
Gym, of Asian Americans United, upbraided district officials.
"As appalling as the December attacks on Asian immigrant youth were, it was the egregious conduct of school and district officials in the months leading up to that day and the months since that warranted federal intervention," Gym said at the School Reform Commission meeting. "We celebrate the lasting gains of these agreements. We hope that they are also welcomed with a measure of abiding humility and deep sorrow for the lack of action which required it."
Stephen A. Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said that panel voted unanimously in a special session to endorse the agreement. The school commission's vote was 4-0, with Commissioner Denise McGregor Armbrister absent.
Glassman said he appreciated the district's cooperation in working out the agreement, and he noted that some of the changes called for had already been put in place.
The settlement applies only to South Philadelphia High, Glassman said, but "it's being used as a model for the School District."
The court-ordered changes are a victory for Asian students and their advocates, who say complaints of harassment and physical violence were long ignored by district officials.
In 2008-09, there were 26 assaults on Asian students, according to a complaint filed with the Justice Department in January.
Gym and others have said that the school has improved significantly under new South Philadelphia High principal Otis Hackney, who also spoke at the meeting.
"We're working to create a much more welcoming, user-friendly, and safe environment at South Philadelphia High School," Hackney said.
The district has 30 days to craft and submit to authorities an implementation plan.
The Philadelphia School District on Wednesday agreed to a federal consent decree on South Philadelphia High. Among the provisions:
Officials will develop a schoolwide anti-harassment policy, to be translated into seven languages, and will provide training.
Translation services for English-language learners and their parents will be provided in numerous situations, including when a complaint is filed, when parents attend meetings, and in all disciplinary proceedings.
The district will post on its website aggregate data about harassment at the school.
Both federal and state agencies will monitor the district through June 30, 2013, and the district must hire a consultant to advise on how it might further prevent harassment. The district has 30 days to file a plan with the court on how it intends to carry out the settlement.EndText