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A District in Denial.

Arlene Ackerman and the Philadelphia School District refuse to acknowledge that Asian students are being racially targeted.


From the January 12, 2010 Metropolis.

After 26 Asian students were assaulted at South Philly High in December, dozens of Asian students boycotted classes for more than a week because they didn't feel safe at the school on South Broad Street. They said that Asian students had been randomly attacked for years and neither the school administration nor the district did much - if anything - to help.

When the Asian students returned to school - after a week of intense media coverage detailing the abuses suffered by these teens - LaGreta Brown, the recently appointed principal at South Philly High, brought students together in the auditorium.

"The newspaper is full of lies," she told the assembly, according to students who attended the meeting.

The principal claimed that the media blew the stories of violence against Asian students out of proportion to sell newspapers and draw viewers to their broadcasts. They did not report the full story, she asserted. There was not a race problem at the school, she told the students; rather there was an undercurrent of violence that exists in the city.

In short, she deflected all criticism and responsibility, which has been the district's consistent approach to this issue. Despite the denial and deflection, the district has known about the violence perpetrated against Asian immigrant students in their schools for a long time. Asian students have been randomly punched in the face, robbed, hit with food, and beaten to a bloody pulp for years, as I documented in a cover story for Philadelphia Weekly last September.

Days after the December violence, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman finally made a public statement about what happened at South Philly High. In it, she implied that the December attacks were merely retaliation for a previous fight where Asian students had beaten up an African-American student.

This is not true.

The December 3rd victims were racially profiled, attacked at random because they are Asian, not because they were involved in any prior incident.

Ackerman later said that the media sensationalized the violence, and that there was a long history of racial discord in the city that she was now being forced to mend.

When she finally made an apology on December 16, it wasn't directed toward the victimized Asian students. Instead, Ackerman said, "This incident, while painful to those young people who were physically injured, left emotional scars on all the students and staff at South Philadelphia High School. For this I am saddened and I deeply apologize."

While trying to promote unity and equality for all is admirable, the result is that she downplays the suffering of the Asian students. In an attempt to create harmony, she blows off the real issue: Asian students feel like they are being targeted. They are too scared to go to school. They want to learn and they can't.

Last week, at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Commission on Human Relations, Ackerman continued denying that the Asian students are being racially targeted. Then, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Ackerman offered another bizarre explanation for the violence at South Philly High: rival gangs.


Ackerman was not invited to speak at the commission meeting, but she arrived with a busload of student ambassadors from the high school and asked to speak. Most of the students were African-American. None were among the Asian students who were assaulted in December. Ackerman is in denial about what is really happening at South Philly High.

She's taking former police commissioner Sylvester Johnson's route - saying that this is society's problem, something far beyond her reach.

In the wake of the December violence, more security cameras were installed at South Philly High. Extra security officers were assigned.

Wei Chen, who has emerged as the leader of the Asian students at South Philly High, says that he feels safer at the school now. But that is only because he's made more African-American friends in recent weeks. They saw him on TV and approached him, apologizing for the abuses he has suffered. They have stood by his side, something that Ackerman has neglected to do for whatever reason.

"Schools should have programs for students to meet and make friends," says Chen, a senior originally from the Fujian Province in China. "If we know each other, we have more information and we won't fight over nothing."

He's not asking for much. He simply wants the district to help foster relationships. He wants to feel safe so he can get an education. That's why he came to America three years ago this month.

Chen told me that the media attention has empowered the Asian students to speak up. But he fears that when the spotlights disappear, the violence will continue unless long-term solutions are put into place.

"We need the public and the school district to care about us," he said.

Wei Chen and the district's Asian students need Ackerman to do her job.

A good leader recognizes the problems - or even the perceptions of problems - and addresses them. Cameras are a great start but they are most effective after incidents have occurred. Security officers will deter violence but not the tension.

Denying there is a problem will only allow it to fester.