Taking charge

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman with students Evan Riddick (left) and Wei Chen in January. She said Friday the district would work to make South Phila. High more conducive to learning.

Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman told parents and students at South Philadelphia High that there would be zero tolerance for violence and that the school would have all the resources needed to ensure students’ safety.

“We’re going to do whatever we need to do to make this a safe school,” Ackerman said in an interview with the Editorial Board.

That’s exactly what students and parents want to hear as a new school year approaches.

Too bad it took eight months after an ugly attack on dozens of mostly Asian students, and a finding by the Justice Department that the students’ claims of abuse had merit, before Ackerman issued such a bold pledge.

The district should take the same stern approach to ending violence at other schools. The attacks at South Philadelphia High captured much of the headlines during the last school year because of the racial overtones, but violence remains a persistent problem at many city schools, including elementary schools.

The long-simmering tensions at South Philadelphia High exploded on Dec. 3 when at least 30 Asians were attacked by groups of mostly African American classmates. A series of missteps and slow response by district officials only exacerbated the problem.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a civil-rights complaint in January. Last week, the Justice Department advised school officials to take steps to settle the matter.

Ackerman seems eager to respond to the Justice Department. She got off to a good start by reassuring Asian students at freshman orientation on Tuesday that violence against them will not be tolerated.

Initially, Ackerman was slow to fully acknowledge the magnitude of the problems at South Philadelphia High. Her tepid response gave Asians legitimate concerns that the mistreatment that they endured would not be addressed.
Ackerman and district officials must set a new tone for this school year. Changing the climate and easing racial tensions and abuse of immigrants at South Philadelphia High must be a priority.

The Justice Department findings also seem to confirm a common theme in the violence that runs rampant in the district: attacks on immigrant students.

Many of the South Philadelphia High victims were recent immigrants and became targets for malicious attacks and verbal abuse. Immigrants at other schools, including West Africans, have been similarly preyed upon by bullies.
South Philadelphia High has had a history of racial tensions and attacks on immigrants.

The district must change the culture at South Philadelphia High and create an environment at all schools where every student can learn without fear for his or her safety.