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Ackerman promises a new day at S. Philly HS

Things will be different this year.

That's the promise that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman made to a group of South Philadelphia High School freshmen and their parents at orientation Tuesday morning.

There will be diversity training for staff, introduction of the option to study Chinese as a foreign language, zero tolerance for violence and strict enforcement of anti-bullying and anti-harassment rules, and an Asian arts program, for starters -- all those things aimed at preventing a repeat of the beatings of Asian students by a group of mostly African American peers that made national and worldwide headlines.

"We have to say, 'enough is enough,' she told the group of about 75 people, "and build on the positive nature of South Philadelphia's diversity."

She assured the group, "Every new school year is a fresh start. We've implemented hard changes." And she called Otis Hackney, the new principal, "an extraordinary man" who is the right leader to move the school forward.

Ackerman said that it takes a community to make change and that the District has been working with many groups inside and outside the school in the wake of last year's incidents.

But Helen Gym of Asian Americans United said that she is not sure the District understands the importance of communicating with the groups that have been working the hardest on issues of anti-Asian harassment long before the Dec. 3 incident.

"So far, that's been minimal," Gym said. She said Hackney has reached out, but "there needs to be a broader conversation with the District. It's not about making broad proclamations that there is zero tolerance, because we've heard it before."

Cecilia Chen of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund called the new programs "promising," but pointed out that the announcement is almost 10 months after the Dec. 3 assaults and three years after Asian students and advocates first asked the District to address the anti-Asian harassment at the school.

"Since December 3, Asian students and advocates have worked tirelessly to develop effective solutions to address racial harassment at SPHS with little or no support from the School District," Chen wrote in an email. "Without dialogue with community groups and students who have been directly affected by racial harassment, it is unclear how effective these new changes will be." 

The federal Department of Justice recently found merit in the Asian students' complaints of chronic harassment at the school and is working with the District to find an "amicable" resolution, in the District's characterization. Ackerman said yesterday that the District made changes at South Philly on its own, not in response to the complaint or the findings.

In greeting the incoming students Tuesday, Ackerman urged them to look at their similarities rather than their differences. "Most of us share common bonds," she said. And she urged the freshmen to set an example for the upperclassmen: "I'm counting on you to do that."

Later, in a hallway interview with reporters, Ackerman said that she had learned from the incident that it is possible for a "culture of complacency" to build up in a school that allows the kind of harassment like that suffered by the Asian students to go unaddressed. "What I learned is that  if silence appears to condone a lack of respect for all young people and all cultures, it becomes a problem." She said that in South Philadelphia, the neighborhood as well as the school, such mutual disrespect has been tolerated for generations. "It's just been passed to different ethnic groups," she said.

Hackney, who spent a year at South Philadelphia as an assistant principal before moving to head Springfield Township High School, said that "students feel safer" because of the installation of more than 100 cameras that monitor movement around the building.

But the cameras aren't a solution, he said. He is working to instill a culture of respect.

"This is a wait-and-see moment," he said. "We're praying that we will never have an incident like last year."

Ackerman promised the students that she would be around to see the freshmen graduate in 2014.

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