In 1981, two stabbings and a series of brawls between African American and Asian students disrupted school life at University City High School.
Two years later, a Vietnamese student named Do Manh spent a month in traction after a pair of attacks at University City left him with a broken neck and a Laotian girl needing stitches in her lip.
Then, as now, in the aftermath of attacks on Asian students at South Philadelphia High, District officials were slow to recognize the problem as ethnic violence and take action. Only after community outcry did they move to respond.
“I went to see [Do Manh] at the hospital and found out from his classmates that no student had even been suspended for that assault,” recalled educator Debbie Wei.
“I ended up going to the newspapers, and after it got reported, then the District made an investigation,” Wei said. “If I hadn’t gone to the newspapers, nothing would have been done.”
In fact, it took Philadelphia police more than a month to get warrants and arrest the two teenagers charged with Do Manh’s beating because the school declined to cooperate in the investigation, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer story at the time.
District officials are no better able to cope and respond today, according to Xu Lin, an organizer with the Chinatown Development Corporation. He said that before the South Philly attacks, he met with Principal LaGreta Brown. “I cautioned her if she didn’t do anything, a massive attack was just a matter of time.”
Dean Coder, a math teacher at South Philadelphia High School for three years, said his warnings to Brown’s predecessor weren’t acted upon.
“I didn’t notice [the violence] right away because it is pretty chaotic there at the school,” he said. “But after a while I started seeing a pattern of ethnic intimidation that seemed to go without any response from the administration.”
Violence affecting immigrant and refugee youth has been a fixture for nearly three decades in Philadelphia schools. Ethnic tension has been especially prevalent between African Americans and Asians.
Despite reports, studies, and investigations, the scenarios that occurred in the 1980s in University City and other schools, and the December attacks against Asian students in South Philadelphia High, have unfolded in strikingly similar ways.
Coming to a hostile place
The Southeast Asian exodus to the United States was a by-product of the wars Uncle Sam fought in that region in the 30 years between the end of World War II in 1945 and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Refugees from Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries found themselves away from home unable to speak the language, understand the culture, or cope with their new neighbors. The newcomers and their children settled in the impoverished and hostile settings of major cities such as Philadelphia, in which they became targets of hatred and bigotry.
In 1981, Wei worked as a community organizer in Philadelphia’s growing Asian community and was sent to University City to establish a connection with the Asian students. But after seeing what they had to deal with, she decided to become a teacher at that school.
“They desperately needed an advocate,” said Wei, now principal of FACTS charter school in Chinatown.
In 1988, the city’s Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services wrote a report called “A Study of Southeast Asian Youth in Philadelphia.”
In a section entitled “Discrimination by Fellow Students and Teachers,” it says that “nearly every Southeast Asian youth complained of experiencing…tensions with other youth, especially Black youth,” and perceived themselves as “targets of discrimination.”
Beyond name-calling, this discrimination “has resulted in some serious and unfortunate incidents such as the stabbings and severe beatings of several Southeast Asian students,” the report said.
“Large chunks of that report could be lifted verbatim and used today to describe the situation,” said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, director of intake and operations at the nonprofit Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, which runs a program at South Philadelphia High.
Finding healing and solutions
Just as is happening now regarding the South Philadelphia incidents, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations held hearings in 1985.
Its 94-page report, published three years later, detailed how thousands of immigrants and refugees struggled with “poverty, language access issues, racism, crime, and lack of preparation for urban life.” But it had little if any impact in providing solutions to the crisis, according to news accounts at the time.
It is unclear what the commission plans to do after investigating the current school violence in South Philly and other schools. Hearings started in January.
In 1985, in one of the first such actions on behalf of Asian students, the Education Law Center filed a civil rights suit against the District. Known as Y.S., after the initials of the lead plaintiff, it alleged that limited-English-proficient Asian students had unequal access to educational opportunities.
In a 1988 settlement, the District agreed to review the placements of Asian students in special and regular education classes, revise programs when necessary, and recruit more personnel who speak Asian languages.
“The lawsuit did at least put in some systematic [English as a Second Language] instruction and provided for the recruitment of bilingual personnel,” said Mary Yee, a community activist who once ran the District’s immigrant programs. Despite some improvements, the plaintiffs are still monitoring District compliance with the requirements because of continuing poor conditions for Asian students.
One thing that has not changed is the tension between the African American and Asian communities in the schools. Yee would rather view the problem as structural than as a “Black-Asian issue.”
Said Yee, “Unfortunately what has happened is that people who really face the same oppression are pitted against each other.”
Xu Lin agrees. “If the School District doesn’t take this kind of violence seriously, it could happen in any school with any group of kids.”