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Statement from the Asian Students Association of Philadelphia (ASAP) on the Justice Department Consent Decree on South Philadelphia High School

December 15, 2010

One year ago today, December 15th, 2009, the students of the South Philadelphia High School boycott decided to suspend our 8-day boycott after gaining national and international support for our effort to stop racial bias against us and fight for truly safe schools . Today, December 15th, 2010, we are here to witness our next victory: the Consent Decree enforced by the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the PA Human Relations Commission.

We are here today to emphasize that this agreement did not come into existence by itself. We the students and the community advocates went to the Dept. of Justice and PHRC in order to ensure that the changes at our school lasted for students beyond just us. We 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. This action shows that the U.S., our country, believes that every child has a right to a safe school, which is protected by the U.S. Constitution and upheld by the courts.

We are here today to be a part of our own victory. 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.

Many people tried to tell us that it was not racial what was happening to us. But what people have to understand is that Asian youth do suffer from racial bias, from people calling them names and adults not doing anything, from making fun of our accents, the way we dress, who we hang out with. We know other students suffer from racial bias in schools or from other biases as well. Recently, many LBGT students have been harassed all around the country, many of whom have committed suicide because nobody spoke up against bullying. We hope that we can share this victory with all those students who have been victims of bias.

As much as this past year was hard on all of us, many times we felt lifted up by people all across the city and this nation. People sent us letters of support, community allies worked with us and taught us how to use our voices and build new relationships, other students across the city who supported us. Today we are no longer the students of the South Philadelphia High School boycott. We are the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia.

We will always remember December 3, but we refuse to be defined by that day. A year ago we came to you as victims. Today we come to you as youth activists, as organizers and leaders who have shown the power to make change. We thank the Dept. of Justice and PHRC and will continue to work closely with them to ensure that South Philadelphia High School is a better school for all students.

Download the statement.


SASA Statement on Justice Dept. Consent Decree on South Philadelphia High School

South Philadelphia High School Asian Student Advocates
(Asian Americans United, Boat People SOS, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund)
December 15, 2010

Statement: Helen Gym

As advocates and organizers who have worked to address both anti-Asian/anti-immigrant bias as well as racial and ethnic harassment and violence in schools, we welcome the School Reform Commission’s approval of historic and ground-breaking agreements with the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

In these agreements, for the first time, the District recognizes and decries anti-Asian and anti-immigrant bias and violence and accepts a clear responsibility to immediately address all instances of racial and ethnic violence. What could have been a simple act of educational and moral leadership by the District a year ago, instead required over a year of bruising struggle and finally the intervention of federal and Commonwealth authorities.

These agreements demonstrate that the violence at South Philadelphia High School was racial. It wasn’t about gangs or retaliation, violent homes or adolescent differences. The focus of our complaint was never 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 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. We celebrate the lasting gains of these agreements; we hope also that they are welcomed with a measure of abiding humility and deep sorrow for the lack of action which required it.

We fought hard and unrelentingly to establish these agreements through these particular agencies because we know that indifference to racial and ethnic violence, and to anti-Asian, anti-immigrant violence in particular, is pernicious and widespread in too many parts of this district. We know also that racial and ethnic violence is a particular form of violence that demands specific responses. Racial and ethnic violence silences and intimidates entire communities. Racial slurs, threats, and harassment send a message to entire communities that they are not welcome and that they are not safe.

We know that the challenges here are difficult, but we cannot continue to act as if all kids ought to just get along. While racial and ethnic violence is always reprehensible, it is important to remember that its continuation is made possible by institutional response. If we understand that racism and bias is a learned behavior then we also understand that schools have both a responsibility and a moral charge to actively engage students in unlearning such behavior, to build multiracial, multicultural communities that can tackle what must be the toughest issue of our time: race. For decades, our organizations have been part of that mission and we continue to seek to work with you on that effort.

Today a year after a historic boycott brought attention to this issue, we look back on an incredible year of transformation, on a level that is rare in situations such as this. We remain encouraged by principal Otis Hackney, whose ability to calm and manage the school should send a clear message about the role of competent and compassionate school leaders and the detrimental impact of poor ones.

Above all, we are inspired by the courage and faith of Asian immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High School. Before these historic agreements, before a new principal arrived, before the public support and federal inquiry, this struggle and the sweeping changes it has evoked started simply with the voices of students, some of whom had arrived in this country only a few weeks before violence descended. It is their voices that have transformed a school and city, inspired other students, and created a partnership that lives up to the best of this nation’s ideals.

Download the statement.


Update on South Philly High

June 2010

It’s been six months since Asian American immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High stood up against bias violence at their school. We’ve seen the removal of the school’s divisive principal, after it was reported she lacked certification, and new leadership step in. However, to date, the School District of Philadelphia has yet to take substantive steps to address the nature of the problems at the school and calm the worries of students, parents, and concerned community members.

As Board Member Helen Gym wrote for the Public School Notebook on June 8:

What we seek from both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is not to resolve this problem among children and families. The problem of not only school violence in general, but targeted racial and ethnic harassment, requires institutional acknowledgment of the existence of a problem as well as institutional response to the remedy. The School District of Philadelphia and South Philadelphia High School bear the responsibility to ensure a promise that every child – no matter their race, ethnicity, or how well they speak English – deserves the opportunity to attend a safe school.

Six months later, Asian Americans United and our partners in a new consortium called SASA (South Philadelphia High Asian Student Advocates) continue to raise the following issues:

  • Ongoing physical and verbal harassment of Asian immigrant students: SASA, along with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has documented more than a dozen incidents of harassment and physical assault with almost uniformly poor response from school and District leadership.
  • Lack of clear written protocol to develop appropriate responses to bias and harassment: What we’ve found is that the District lacks options. They only know two things – suspend or ignore. And we’ve seen that in full force at Southern, where students have been suspended without any investigation or, in other cases, told to hug when they’ve had food thrown at them or racial slurs cast in their face.
  • Lack of significant dialogue and training to address race and race relations: To date there have been only two half-day professional development sessions for staff on cultural diversity, and nothing for the broader student body, although a subset of students participated in a two-day dialogue session in December. Dialogue and healing must occur between and among students, staff and the broader school community.
  • Failure to comply with language access mandates: Flagrant violations abound for students and families who don’t speak English. Interpretation is inconsistent and frequently inaccurate. Parents who don’t speak English have been turned away by the school.
  • Lack of communication and follow through with students and families: Once incidents are filed, the district and school rarely investigates the complaint and does little, if any, follow-up. In one case, a parent whose son was injured in March to date has not received a report on what happened to her son to this date. To date, SASA members have not met with District personnel despite making repeated requests since April.

Asian Americans United remains committed to following through on the complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. If you are interested in supporting that effort with an organizational letter of support, please contact Ellen Somekawa at 215.925.1538 or aau @ aaunited.org.


Statement on the resignation of
S. Phila. High School Principal LaGreta Brown

from the
South Philadelphia High School Asian Student Advocates (SASA)
– AAU is a member of SASA
May 13, 2010

As a coalition of adult advocates and youth organizers, we have felt strongly that administrative change was a necessary first step to begin the process of healing and the work of positive change towards racial and cultural learning, respect, and community building within the school. Under Ms. Brown’s leadership, language access policies have been deliberately violated. Even post-Dec. 3rd, there is ongoing harassment and violence and a hostile environment that has exacerbated existing racial tensions in the school.

While we are hopeful about Mr. Hackney’s appointment, we believe the District has missed an important opportunity to engage the broader community in an important dialogue on finding the best leader for South Philadelphia High School at this time. We have been in this position before. The problems at the school are serious, there is ongoing violence and harassment of students, there is a basic lack of policy and procedure, and what is needed is a real change in the way that the District has been approaching the problems at S. Philly High.

In spite of this missed opportunity, we intend to continue our work with the District on finding real and lasting solutions. We hope for the sake of students, staff and community of South Philadelphia that this change in the administration will signal a renewed effort to address the real and deeply rooted problems which plague this learning community


AALDEF files Civil Rights Complaint against the School District of Philadelphia

January 19, 2010

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) filed a complaint on January 19, 2010 for civil rights violations with the U.S. Department of Justice charging the School District of Philadelphia and South Philadelphia High School (SPHS) with discrimination against Asian students on the basis of race and national origin in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The complaint charges that the District and School acted with “deliberate indifference” to the harassment against Asian students and “intentional disregard for the welfare of Asian students” at SPHS. The complaint cites numerous instances in which school officials were notified by teachers and Asian students about the increasingly hostile environment towards Asian students but failed to take any steps to prevent the widespread attacks on Asian students on December 3, 2009.

On December 3, 2009, large numbers of Asian immigrant students from SPHS were assaulted in and around the school throughout the day. Thirteen Asian students were sent to the hospital due to their injuries. For over a year before the December 3rd attacks, AALDEF in collaboration with local community groups – Asian Americans United, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, Boat People SOS, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, and Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, Inc. – urged school and district officials to address in the increasingly hostile environment for Asian students at SPHS without success.

AALDEF Staff Attorney Cecilia Chen said: “The failure of the Philadelphia School District and South Philadelphia High School to acknowledge and address the severe harassment of Asian students at SPHS led to the December 3rd attacks. The School and District must be held accountable for failing to protect Asian students at SPHS.”

Following the attacks on December 3rd, over sixty Asian students from SPHS boycotted the school for eight days citing fear for their safety and concern at the District’s repeated failure to address the widespread anti-Asian violence at the school.

Chen continued: “The students have gone back to school but that does not mean that the school is now safe. Asian immigrant students are still being targeted and threatened. We want to ensure that Asian immigrant students can go to school in a safe environment.”


The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), founded in 1974, is a national organization that protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans. By combining litigation, advocacy, education, and organizing, AALDEF works with Asian American communities across the country to secure human rights for all.

Download the full press release.


Public Statement by Students of the SPHS Boycott

December 15, 2009

Through our trials and struggles, we pushed the school to hear us. We have made change by standing together. We are proud of what we have done. If something happens again after all this, we know that we have strong wills and we will stand together again.

We have came back to stand with more students. We want to start a dialogue with other student organizations. We will continue to work with the community organizations. The struggle will go on until all the demands are met. We won’t give up. We ask everyone to continue to pay attention to what’s going on at South Philadelphia High School. We hope that school can change their attitude for the benefits of all students. We thank our supporters. Without the support of everyone we could not go this far. We are excited for the future. We now believe in hope and change like president Obama.

We want a safe school for everyone. We want everyone to have a good education. This is not the end, but just the beginning of the fight for better futures and better educations for all races of students.

— Students of the South Philly High boycott —


AALDEF Intention to file Civil Rights Complaint Press Release

District’s failure to remedy rampant anti-Asian violence at South Philadelphia High School prompts action
December 11, 2009

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) announced today its intention to file a complaint for civil rights violations with the U.S. Department of Justice against the Philadelphia School District for failing to address the rampant violence against Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School (SPHS).

Read the full press release here along with news from AALDEF.


Anti-Asian Violence at South Philadelphia High School

Statement by Wei Chen, president, South Philadelphia High School Chinese-American Student Association
December 4, 2009

It is our opinion that South Philadelphia High School is still not a safe place for us. Because we are Asian immigrants, we are targeted. We have been working with the school a long time, but still the school has failed to provide a concrete plan to address our safety inside and outside the building.

We remain very upset with some staff members who are unresponsive to our concerns. We have been saying repeatedly that the security team has problems, but the School District still has not responded to our concerns. One staff person even slept through our meeting last Friday.

Because of that we will not return to South Philadelphia High School this week. Instead, we are going to meet in our community to figure out some real solutions of our own. Dozens of students have already committed to meeting during school hours. We ask the police and school district to recognize what we’re doing and respect our ability to travel between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

We invite concerned students from all races to contact us if you want to join.