District settles with feds on South Philly HS

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The School Reform Commission today approved settlement agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, agreeing to take steps to correct “severe and pervasive” racial harassment and bias against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School.

The Department of Justice agreement states that the District violated the equal protection rights of Asian students “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.”

On Dec., 3, 2009, more than 30 Asian students were attacked in a series of attacks inside and outside the school by mostly African American schoolmates. Thirteen were hospitalized. The incident led to state and federal investigations and national and international publicity.

Asian leaders had complained about harassment in the school since 2007, but the District took little action. After the incident Superintendent Arlene Ackerman downplayed the racial angle, suggested the daylong attacks were retaliation for an incident the day before, and that gang activity was to blame. For more than a week, she declined to meet with the Asian students, who stayed out of school for eight days in protest.

“This consent decree demonstrates that the violence…was racial,” said Helen Gym of Asian Americans United, who spoke to the SRC on behalf of a coalition called the South Philadelphia High School Asian Student Advocates. “It wasn’t about gangs or retaliation, violent homes or adolescent differences. The focus of our complaint was not about problematic young people but about a school district that had failed to do everything in its power to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for learning.

“As appalling as the December attacks 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.”

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s strongly worded "conciliation agreement" with the School District states that "Respondent [the District] acknowledges that victims of racial and ethnic harassment and intimidation ought not be punished for being victims of such intimidation and ought not be portrayed as perpetrators or gang members bearing equal guilt with their attackers."

Ackerman, in a brief statement before the vote, said that the District had already taken significant action. “We recognize the lessons learned and the tremendous steps that the students, teachers, principal and staff have taken over the past year,” she said. “Our students deserve a harassment-free learning environment, and we strive every day to provide this for them.”

She said the Dec. 3 incidents are “a reminder of just how vitally important it is that everyone be treated with dignity and respect."

Otis Hackney, who became principal of the school in July, told the SRC that the school has implemented many changes to improve the climate, including some included in the agreement. “We have worked to create a more welcoming atmosphere,” he said.

Asian students and advocates have praised Hackney. After the vote and outside the auditorium where the SRC was meeting, he hugged student leader Wei Chen, who graduated from Southern in June.

“For the most part, the school has calmed down,” Hackney said. “Students feel safer in the building."

However, he said it is always “fragile” and that constant vigilance is required to prevent small incidents from escalating.

Pedro Noguera, a nationally known expert on diversity training and cultural competency, has been working at the school and his continued role is part of the settlement.

In the agreement, the District does not acknowledge liability for the incidents but agrees to several concrete steps, including training for students and staff in multi-cultural awareness and diversity and translation of documents and interpreters for students and parents.

It requires District personnel to “take reasonable steps to stop any harassment that they witness.” It also calls for “prompt investigation” of student complaints of harassment and bullying.

The District will appoint a compliance monitor, who will report to the Department of Justice and the PHRC.

"Students have a right to be able to attend schools without being harassed and bullied by other students,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Zane David Memeger in a press conference. “When school officials become aware of these incidents, they have a responsibility to make sure students have a safe environment.”

Stephen Glassman, board chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which held a series of hearings about the incidents, said that it became clear that harassment was a pervasive issue.

Unfortunately, he said, “it often takes a crisis” to spur action. The District has agreed to use the anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies and procedures developed at South Philadelphia for its schools, Meneger said.

If the monitor finds that the agreement isn’t being followed, the Department of Justice could take further action.

Asian leaders and students were exultant about the settlement.

“We are here today to be part of our own victory,” said Wei Chen, who is now at Community College of Philadelphia. “However, we do not forget the many students who have dropped out or lost faith and are not here because too many school officials have let them down.”

“We remember December 3, but we refused to be defined by that day,” he said.

“Today we are no longer the students of the South Philadelphia High School. We are the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia.”