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DOJ finds merit in S. Philly civil rights complaint

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by Daniel Denvir
 

The U.S. Department of Justice has found merit in a civil rights complaint filed against the Philadelphia School District over December 2009 violence against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School.

Cecilia Chen, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) lawyer who filed the complaint, celebrated the news.

“We’re very happy that the Justice department has decided to move forward with the complaint,” she told the Notebook. “We’re really encouraged that they’re taking steps to address harassment that’s been going on for years, and we hope that whatever takes place next will include students and families.”

AALDEF charged that District and school officials showed “intentional disregard” for the students before, during, and after the December 3, 2009 attacks. Advocates say that a largely African-American group of students targeted Asians because of their race and status as immigrants.

In a Friday statement, the District acknowledged receiving a letter from the Department of Justice and quoted General Counsel Michael A. Davis as saying, “The District is presently engaged in discussions with the Department of Justice seeking to resolve this matter amicably. Because of the ongoing discussions, the District will not comment further on this matter.”

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman also pledged to confront the problems, although her statement lacked detail or any mention of South Philadelphia High School in particular.

“We will work diligently to ensure that all of our students have a safe environment in which to learn,” said Ackerman. “We look forward to working with the Department of Justice to find the necessary solutions to these long-standing issues.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

According to the AALDEF complaint, 13 Asian students were treated at a hospital for injuries sustained during the December attacks. The violence began in the morning and continued in the lunchroom and in front of the school’s Broad Street campus. Officials allegedly ushered fearful Asian students into the lunchroom and later, after school, outside school doors despite repeated requests by the students to stay away from what they saw to be a dangerous situation.

The District response has been controversial. Ackerman initially played down the assaults and defended Principal LaGreta Brown. Brown resigned in May after the revelation that her principal certification was not up to date. After the December attacks, dozens of Asian students boycotted classes for eight days to demand safe classrooms. Ackerman declined to meet with them for almost a week.

Advocates were troubled by the District’s response, charging officials of feeding racial tension by making accusations of gang activity by Asian students. Ackerman also made reference to alleged past incidents of Asian students attacking African Americans that were never substantiated.

In February, retired federal Judge James T. Giles completed a review ordered by the District. Advocates criticized the report as incomplete, lacking historical context, and relying on unsubstantiated evidence. Judge Giles cited but failed to confirm or put to rest a rumor that an Asian attack against a disabled African American student had sparked the December 3 violence.

Advocates say that Asian students complained of a hostile environment for over a year before the attacks but were rebuffed by administrators.

The complaint alleges that Asian students’ constitutional civil rights were violated and that the District has violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 by failing to provide students and families adequate interpretation and translation.

It is unclear what sort of settlement Justice and the School District may reach, but Chen pointed to the 2004 consent decree between DOJ and Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School as one possible outcome. That agreement allowed the department to monitor the school and mandated new anti-harassment and diversity measures.

Lafayette was closed in 2006 and replaced by smaller schools, so it is difficult to measure that decree’s impact. In Philadelphia, advocates have pushed hard over the past year to put new safeguards in place, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is conducting a separate investigation.

“We would like to see more community involvement with school disciplinary policy, we’d like to see a stronger policy against harassment and bullying, and more support for English language learners with translation and interpretation,” says Chen. “I think there’s a lot of work that can be done.”

Updated at 7:02 p.m.

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