This week’s Philadelphia Weekly cover story has a crushing story about violence heaped on Asian students in many Philadelphia public schools.
Dozens of the alleged incidents are relatively minor—name-calling, verbal threats, petty robberies, random punches in the head while walking down stairwells, and general intimidation. But according to [South Philadelphia High School student Wei] Chen, at least six times last school year those minor incidents escalated into massive rumbles where outnumbered Asian students were pummeled by packs of teens, sending several of the victims to hospitals. Like the day last October when a group of around 30 kids allegedly attacked five Chinese students after school in the Snyder Avenue subway station, one block from school.
Where administrators or the School District intervened, improvements in student relations improved and the violence decreased—the number of overall violence in the district decreased by 17 percent last school year. But the culture of violence against Asian immigrants has existed for so long at some public schools that students almost accept that random beat downs are a part of life.
“They don’t even know you,” says Chen, who barely spoke English when he emigrated from China to Philadelphia in January 2007. “They just hit because you’re Asian.”
Asian Americans United has worked on this issue for decades, and was involved with some of the cases highlighted in the article. The thing that strikes me as I read PW’s take is how poorly equipped many schools, administrators and staff are to handle violent situations - whether big or small.
One school tackled the problem with hall sweeps and hoodie checks. One student pointed out how a teacher at his school referred to him in class as “Yo Chinese.” At one of the worst offending schools, South Philadelphia High, an organized student walkout to protest the violence was greeted by the administration (since removed) with a threat of declaring the students truant.
I don’t think there’s a single person in the District who wishes for any of this violence to happen or that they wouldn’t do something if they could. But the reality is that too few adults know how to truly handle situations – especially the small ones – in ways that build community rather than divide and conquer our kids into victims and perpetrators. Too few schools have a way to address problems with serious internal reflection among all staff members, data analysis, developing personal relationships, and the creation of an action plan.
Right now we still rely on increasingly costly programs like "zero tolerance" which sound good to the average passer by but in reality fail to give teachers and administrators the tools to curb violence when children are young or before offenses escalate.
A June 22nd issue of the New Yorker featured a profile of David Kennedy, who consults with police departments and youth groups on curbing violence. And what impressed me about that analysis as well as a program at the state called PIRIS, is the recognition that violence is multi-layered and can be as much a reflection of an environment as it is of a child. Responses as well need to be multilayered, focused and deeply personal.
But until schools and administrators start finding new ways to re-establish the environment and culture of our schools, too many of our young children - many of them are most vulnerable - are suffering.