As much as has been written and said about the attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School last year, very little of it has added to what was known from the beginning. There has been some fine-tuning of details, but the facts have not been shaken.
Asian leaders want to make sure the incident doesn’t become old news that’s easily ignored, which is understandable. The public’s attention span is short. It would be tragic to lose the momentum needed to make sure the violence exacerbated by racism and xenophobia does not reoccur.
There is so much violence daily in Philadelphia’s schools that many non-Asian students wonder why this episode has gotten so much attention. But the solutions to South Philadelphia High’s particular problems with violence may provide remedies at others.
First and foremost should be the acknowledgment that this is a violence problem. No matter the catalyst, it is unconscionable that thugs could run rampant in any school the way they did on Dec. 3 at South Philadelphia High.
It is even more troubling that those thugs could bring their violence into the streets of Philadelphia with little or no fear that the police would intervene. Their arrogance was validated by the absence of officers near the school when they were most needed.
Also absent was the preemptive coordination inside the school that might have kept things from spilling into the streets. That the school has had four principals in five years shows the difficulty of getting it the right leadership. But the school district can’t be so defensive that it won’t admit it still doesn’t have that person.
The district, in particular Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, has done a poor job articulating sympathy for Asian students in this matter. She rightly expressed concern for all students and teachers who go to school in fear. But she initially seemed dismissive of the racial overtones to this violence.
It is overly simplistic, however, to label it as African American students beating up Asian students. Most of South Philadelphia High’s black students and most of its Asian students weren’t even involved. The most common denominator among the victims other than being Asian was their recent immigrant status; many still are learning the English language.
Much of the reporting suggests those Asian students who weren’t born in this country or haven’t assimilated culturally were more likely to be targeted for attacks and verbal abuse — sometimes by other Asians. That’s been a problem for immigrants at other schools, including West Africans, who also have been assaulted.
Schools should be an ideal place to shed the mysteries about other cultures that lead to stereotyping, derision, and violence. Asians and blacks in many of America’s cities have struggled to coexist as they share crumbling neighborhoods. Philadelphia may be able to make a breakthrough, but it’s going to take effort from more than just the school district.