What went wrong in handling of S. Philadelphia violence?

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

Former South Philadelphia High School student Hao Luu is now attending a private school his family can scarcely afford, is repeating 9th grade, and is not receiving any formal Englishas- a-second-language instruction.

Beaten after school on December 2, the day before an explosion of violence against Asian immigrant students, Luu, a 17-year-old student from Vietnam, ended up spending months fighting disciplinary charges and then countering accusations that he is a gang member.

The School District said it has now mailed him a letter for his file that clears him of any gang involvements. But he, his grandmother, and the School Reform Commission (SRC) are still awaiting a formal explanation of why he was suspended in the first place, transferred to a disciplinary school, and then prevented from returning to South Philadelphia, even after the charges against him were dismissed.

The series of mass assaults at South Philadelphia on December 3 injured 30 students and sent 13 to area hospitals, prompting an eight-day boycott of the school by dozens of Asian students.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal civil rights complaint with the Department of Justice, charging the District and school with “deliberate indifference” to a history of harassment of Asian students.

Responses to the violence

Since the violence, the District has implemented new security measures at the school, hired a diversity consultant for staff training, and organized crosscultural activities and groups.

But 18 speakers at a March 17 SRC meeting, including Hao Luu’s grandmother and nine Asian students, criticized the District for its handling of the aftermath. The testimony pointed to a failure to communicate with families, an inadequate investigation of the violence, and a lack of action against school staff who responded inappropriately.

Speakers also said that the District had failed to acknowledge a pattern of violence against Asian students, reacting instead by accusing Hao Luu and others of being gang members and implying that they were somehow responsible.

The tearful testimony of his grandmother, Suong Nguyen, and Hao Luu’s story made front-page news, becoming the latest illustration of the District’s puzzling and as yet unexplained handling of the incident.

“Review Hao’s case and clear him from wrongful accusations,” said Nguyen.

A distressed Commissioner Johnny Irizarry pushed the issue with SRC Chair Robert Archie.

“Mr. Archie, I would just like to request that the staff provide us an explanation for this,” Irizarry said.

“Rest assured, they will,” Archie replied.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the District was preparing a response on the handling of the case and would not comment until the SRC sees it.

Counting Luu’s case, five of the 19 suspensions meted out after the December attacks on Asian students were overturned, Gallard said.

The District did not offer the Notebook a breakdown of how many of the suspended South Philadelphia students were African American or Asian, though previously they had told the press that eight Asians were among those suspended. Nor did the District release the ethnicity of the students whose suspensions were overturned.

Luu and his grandmother said they went public to try to clear his record and reputation.

“The school is accusing me of something that I’m not guilty of,” Luu told the Notebook through an interpreter in February. “They are messing up my record. They have gone too far, and that’s why I continue making this an issue.”

While not mentioned by name, Luu was a central figure in the official School District report on the South Philadelphia violence – an investigation conducted by a retired federal judge, James Giles, at the request of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

The Giles report describes an incident involving a Vietnamese student and a group of African American students in a stairwell at South Philadelphia High School on December 2. The report said this confrontation led to a conflict after school that day – what the judge called the “Walgreen’s incident.”

The judge’s report offered four conflicting versions of what happened outside that Walgreen’s store on December 2 while not resolving contradictory reports about who attacked whom and whether a “crippled/disabled African American student” cited in these accounts was a victim or an attacker. The report recommended that the school and the District interview witnesses about what really happened.

Giles pointed to rumors about the Walgreen’s incident as triggering the attacks on Asian students December 3. Ackerman, in her first public statement about the violence, referenced one hearsay version of the incident, saying the conflict at the school “began as an unwarranted off-campus attack on a disabled African American student.”

Hao Luu’s story

Hao Luu said after an incident in the stairwell in the afternoon, he and four friends were followed after school that day and attacked twice by a group of 10 or more students. “I got beat down and fell in the Walgreen’s driveway,” he said.

His grandmother went to school the next day to file a report. Luu stayed home on December 3 due to his injuries, and then participated in the eightday Asian student boycott.

Luu first heard he had been suspended when he returned to school after the boycott. He then received a transfer to a disciplinary school and missed weeks of school while challenging the charges.

Advocates said Luu’s paperwork showed numerous due process errors, including untranslated notices and repeated failure to contact the family in a timely manner.

With the help of Cecilia Chen, an attorney from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Luu prevailed in a disciplinary hearing on January 29. The hearing officer overturned the transfer and reenrolled Luu at South Philadelphia.

But when he tried to return, he was again denied entry and presented with yet another transfer signed by Principal LaGreta Brown and approved by a regional superintendent. In a follow-up conversation in early February, Chen was told by a District lawyer that the school couldn’t guarantee Luu’s safety because he was involved with a gang.

Soon after, having missed so much school, Luu enrolled in the private school.

In a subsequent meeting with school officials, Luu was accused of being involved in a fight at the school a year before, Chen said. But he had been living in Virginia at the time. He had only been attending South Philly High for three months when he was attacked, and he had no disciplinary record at either school.

Luu said he regrets not being able to stay at South Philadelphia “because they have a good ESL program.”

“The family has gone through so much,” attorney Chen noted. “And they’re still distressed after how the school dealt with their responsibility.”

View video of the March 17 testimony at the SRC by Suong Nguyen and others.