Racial Tensions Grow Violent At Philly High School

Asian-American Tensions Dozens of Asian and Asian-American Philadelphia high school students are back in the classroom following an eight-day boycott. The students mobilized to demonstrate their frustration after being targeted in a series of violent, racially-charged attacks by their African-American peers. Additionally, those who fell victim to the tensions say school faculty and security personnel did little to intervene or mediate the chaos. Susan Phillips, a Philadelphia reporter for NPR member station WHYY, explains the raucous, the strong emotions brewing beneath the surface and how parents and community leaders hope to make it stop.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, why the Mississippi governor's proposal to save money by consolidating four of the eight public universities in Mississippi is setting off shockwaves. Here's a hint: Three are historically black colleges, and the fourth is a women's college. We'll hear more about this in just a few minutes.

But first, we've been talking a great deal on this program about the issue of safety in school and traveling to and from school, especially after a Chicago high school student, an innocent bystander, was killed in an after-school brawl earlier this year.

Here's another story: Dozens of Asian and Asian-American students have returned to South Philadelphia High School after an eight-day boycott. The students initiated the boycott after more than two dozen Asian students were attacked at the school, mostly by their African-American classmates. And, the Asian students say, school staff, including security guards, did little or nothing to stop the attacks.

Susan Phillips is a reporter from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. She's been covering this story, and she's with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

SUSAN PHILLIPS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I just want to give just a sense of the intense feeling and fear that some of these students have. There was a school board meeting that you covered where Vietnamese student Diane Trong(ph) testified. Let's just hear what she said.

Ms.�DIANE TRONG (student): You, me, everybody are human. Why don't they have rights to live? We have the right to go to school, and we need to be treated fairly. I don't believe that everybody's bad, and I wish there is a place where racism does not exist. And right now, we really, really need help and the action from school and the school board. Thank you.

MARTIN: Also at the same meeting, Ellen Somekawa, the executive director of the local group Asian-Americans United, talked about what she thinks is contributing to this environment. Let's hear what she had to say.

Ms.�ELLEN SOMEKAWA (Executive Director, Asian-Americans United): Those comments where are you from?, Hey, Chinese. Yo, Bruce Lee. Who are you, Dragonballz? Speak English. Those aren't the words of the bad kids. Those are the words of adult staff at South Philadelphia High. So stop blaming the children and start owning the responsibility.

MARTIN: So Susan, when did all this start? This seems to be a racial issue, racial conflict. Do you is that what it is, and when did this start?

PHILLIPS: Well, that's certainly what the Asian students and members of the Asian community say it is. The big day was December 3rd, which was a Thursday, and for some reason, the group of African-American kids decided to attack Asian kids. There were 26 kids attacked, 13 of them were sent to the hospital.

What the kids say and what the leaders of the Asian-American community say is that the adults failed to protect them not just that day but for years, these attacks against Asian immigrant students have been happening within the school, on the streets outside of the school.

I've spoken to police officers who confirmed that for me. I've spoken to former teachers who confirmed that for me. And what they say is that the staff of the school have not responded, even though members of the Asian-American community have reached out to them, asked them about, you know, having meetings, sitting down, talking. They haven't responded well.

MARTIN: And what have the school officials said when they've been asked about this, as I assume they have been?

PHILLIPS: They certainly have. You know, it sort of has taken different tones. It's sort of gone up and down. There were times where they seemed pretty defensive and were saying this is not an Asian-black issue. These are students. Kids fight kids all the time.

They've recently sort of have come out and, you know, sort of tried to take more responsibility for it because they've gotten so much pressure, not just from the press but from the Asian-American community. And they also say that this day - this Thursday day of violence was sort of touched off by a day before where an African-American student who was disabled was attacked by Asian students. Now, the Asian community leaders say the two incidents aren't related but that's something that (unintelligible) is related.

MARTIN: In Washington, D.C., we've also covered attacks on students by other kids and in these - these are all African-Americans and in this instance, authorities, school officials and the police say that this seems to be gang-related, that these kids - and sometimes it's a gang initiation. That kids are encouraged to sort of target kids, particularly who go to certain schools, because they're readily identifiable by their school uniforms. Now, if the school officials are saying this is not racial, what is it?

PHILLIPS: That's a good question. You know, one of the things that the organizers say over and over again is, this has been going on for years and years, and they pretty much put the blame on the school staff. Like you heard Ellen Somekawa say, staff members are often, according to the students - egg on the African-American students often and will use racial slurs against the Asian students.

MARTIN: They seem to have some animosity toward Asian students.

PHILLIPS: That's correct.

MARTIN: So let me just briefly in the minute we have left Susan, Philadelphia's Commission on Human Relations has stepped in as a mediator in this incident. What's likely to happen now? What are the steps that are being taken to address this now?

PHILLIPS: Well, the commission is serving as a mediator in this situation. They've met with the Asian-American community leaders and district officials and they say it was a positive first step. They're not really saying much after that. Also what's happening is the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund is filing a compliant with the federal government, which could lead to a lawsuit.

MARTIN: Which would allege what? That the students are being discriminated against by the fact that...

PHILLIPS: Yes. That the...

MARTIN: ...there is not a safe environment for them in which to learn?

PHILLIPS: Right, that there is a history of the school officials disregarding attacks against Asian students that are racially motivated.

MARTIN: Susan, we'd love it if you'd keep us posted on this.

PHILLIPS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Susan Phillips is a reporter for NPR member station WHYY in Philadelphia. She joined us from there. We thank you so much and Happy Holidays to you.

PHILLIPS: Thanks.

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