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Looking back on racial violence at South Philly High

By the Notebook on Dec 3, 2012 05:19 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Students protesting outside an SRC meeting in December 2009. This photo appears at "We Cannot Keep Silent," a current exhibit at the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

by Duong Nghe Ly

Today marks the three-year anniversary of the day that changed my life.

On Dec. 3, 2009, I was at South Philadelphia High School when Asian immigrant students were targets of racially charged attacks that lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., after school. My friends and I received little to no help from the school, even though many of us had asked for protection or permission to leave early. At the end of the day, 30 Asian immigrant students had been physically attacked, 13 of whom went to the hospital to seek treatment. I could not help feeling frightened and angry at the indifference and irresponsibility of the school’s officials.

Unfortunately, that day was not an anomaly. It was the culmination of years of racial abuse and neglect toward Asian immigrant students at the school.

In response, I helped launch an eight-school-day boycott against the school and the School District of Philadelphia. The boycott brought local, national, and even international attention to anti-Asian, anti-immigrant bias. I worked with other students at the school and with community members from different community organizations like Boat People S.O.S., Asian Americans United, and Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia.

We learned to find our voice despite the fear we felt during the struggle. We testified at boards and at commissions. We filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Both agreed that the School District of Philadelphia had violated the 14th Amendment on equal protection and demanded that the District adopt policies that would ensure the safety of every student in school.

These days, South Philadelphia High School has become a much different place. In many ways, it is safer. We fought to get a new principal. That new principal has helped to reduce much of the outright physical and verbal harassment that I used to endure on a regular basis. We built a multiracial student collaborative to work on school safety, and there are new policies in place to address harassment, where before there was none.

Over the last three years, I have grown from a victim of school violence to an empowered student activist. I’m educating myself politically through conversations with others and through engaging with my own community. I have had the privilege of traveling across the country to share my story. In 2011, I visited the White House to attend an anti-bullying summit with the president, the first lady, and the secretary of education. I have learned that there are many painful stories similar to my own and that there are compassionate solutions to problems of school violence and racial hatred.

I am learning to write and talk about my experiences. Recently, I did an interview with StoryCorps, a national oral history project. I also supported an exhibit on the South Philadelphia High struggle, which is now at the Philadelphia Folklore Project. The exhibit details how immigrant, student, and community voices had an impact on civil rights issues in education. It was important to document our struggle at South Philadelphia High for all of Philadelphia, not just our school.

Today, I am at the University of Pennsylvania, the first in my family to attend a private institution. Having been here for two years, I have taken a lot of things for granted. I used to go to school every day feeling unsafe and stressed out, wondering when I would be mocked, teased, or beaten up because of who I was. Now, even at 2 a.m., I walk to my dorm feeling perfectly safe, knowing that Penn police are on campus to protect me. It amazes me sometimes to look back and reflect on my newly found privilege.

I have not forgotten that many people I know left South Philadelphia High School — students of all races. I especially feel pain for the students who left because of harassment and bias they had experienced at school. That was something the school should have stopped. Of the six Chinese immigrant students who went to the hospital on Dec. 3, 2009, five dropped out of school.

As I look back on three years, I have learned to be more conscious of my privilege and deliberate in my actions. So I have learned to invest my time and energy on specific issues that I am passionate about. I am pursuing a sociology major and hope to return to my South Philadelphia neighborhood as a community organizer and educator. Most important, I have found a network of like minds from around the country that inspire me. There is still a lot to learn, but I’m developing my own sense of social justice and political consciousness.

Often times, oppression and injustice persist because people believe they are powerless to improve the situations they are trapped in. At South Philadelphia High School, our slogan was, “We have the power to make change.” It was our belief in collective power that prompted us to challenge the status quo and create change in our school. It’s still my belief in the people’s power that motivates me to pursue my passion in working with my community. As long as we believe in our collective ability to make change and improve our conditions, what happened at South Philadelphia High will not happen again, there or elsewhere.

Duong Nghe Ly is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is majoring in sociology. He is also on the advisory board of BPSOS–Delaware Valley, a nonprofit aiming to empower the Vietnamese community in the Delaware Valley area.

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Comments (7)

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on December 3, 2012 6:06 pm
This is a sad anniversary, but we must remember it. Even now, the district is acting as if this doesn't matter--there are rumors (and I hope only rumors) that Furness High School, a small high school with a good climate that happens to be about 43% Asian and 32% ELL, may close. Small school communities where students feel safe, nurtured, understood, and educated are crucial to stopping racial bullying and helping students stay in school until they graduate.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 3, 2012 6:28 pm
Thank you Duong. Very poignant and moving. Excellent commentary. Please do become an educator.
Submitted by Marc Brasof (not verified) on December 3, 2012 11:31 pm
I love this!
Submitted by tom-104 on December 4, 2012 6:21 am
It must be pointed out that this situation was allowed to develop under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. She sided with the bullies against the Asian students, claiming the Asian students were in gangs, and supported the principal who handled this so incompetently. It occurred when Ackerman was in the midst of gutting the School District finances with gross mismanagement and starting the process of starving public schools to set up charters and her Promise Academies, the consequences of which we now live with (along with help from Governor Corbett). I believe this was a lot more than simple incompetence or moral failing. She was deliberately promoting a political agenda which she helped develop at the Broad Foundation, a major promoter of public school privatization. Before becoming Superintendent in Philadelphia, she was the for Director of the Broad Superintendents Academy. While she was Superintendent, she was on the Board of the Broad Foundation. (See this pdf for reference: Why would she encourage this situation at Southern? This is part of the Broad method of creating "churn". A document from Parents Across America, "A Parent Guide to the Broad Foundation's training programs and education policies", describes "churn": ********* "Broad and his foundation believe that public schools should be run like a business. One of the tenets of his philosophy is to produce system change by “investing in a disruptive force.” Continual reorganizations, firings of staff, and experimentation to create chaos or “churn” is believed to be productive and beneficial, as it weakens the ability of communities to resist change. As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, a proponent of this philosophy has said, “…we can afford to make lots more mistakes and in fact we have to throw more things at the wall. The big companies that get into trouble are those that try to manage their size instead of experimenting with it.” A hallmark of the Broad-style leadership is closing existing schools rather than attempting to improve them, increasing class size, opening charter schools, imposing high-stakes test-based accountability systems on teachers and students, and implementing of pay for performance schemes. The brusque and often punitive management style of Broad-trained leaders has frequently alienated parents and teachers and sparked protests." *********************** Another document from Parents Across America, "How to tell if your district is infected by the Broad Virus", describes our experience with Ackerman to a tee:
Submitted by Jonathan R. Verlin (not verified) on December 4, 2012 7:09 am
"Voices of South Philly" (Re-printed from the Daily News: Nov. 26, '10) While Ms. Tales in her article of November 17 has very cogently reported on the H.R.C.’s last public hearing on school violence precipitated by the events which rocked South Philadelphia High School in 12/09, the point of view of the teachers who experienced it directly and collaterally is strikingly absent.  So is the history, despite those who, like myself, have experienced it first-hand years before.  As I wrote in a letter which published on July 10, 2009, such behavior is wrong regardless of both intention and circumstance.  Downplaying its history and propagation tacitly accommodates the perpetrators and mars the experience of those children who responsibly strive to succeed.  Such is the philosophy of moral relativism and is harbored by school district officials and comforted by the S.R.C. and by Dr. Arlene Ackerman especially.  Its primacy centers on “moving schools forward” to the detriment of properly addressing and redressing the aberrations in the past by those which it arguably affects most. I can’t help but wonder what urban public education would sound like were the silences of reason and fair play not given short shrift by the abomination of political correctness and the derelictions of undue accommodation and tolerance.  Happily, the latter are not my heritage as scholar and teacher.  Sadly, such is what the umbral taint of Philadelphia’s progressives hath wrought as they ever have and likely ever shall.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 4, 2012 8:15 am
The principal at Southern in 2009 - LaGreta Brown - did not have PA certification and war written up at her school in Atlantic City. Nevertheless, the School District of Phila. gave her a job. Ackerman blamed the victims - as your wrote - and caused considerable damage to one student in particular who was expelled for alleged gang involvement. None of what Ackerman said was true. That student ended up the next year at Furness and graduated in 2012. He was a fine student and young man. What would have happened if there was not another school for him that could provide the language classes? SRC - are you listening?
Submitted by jc (not verified) on December 4, 2012 10:00 am
A high school in Appleton, Wisconsin tried an experiment under the enlightened guidance of their principal, LuAnn Coenen. She wanted to see if she could positively affect the fighting, weapons-carrying and general lack of focus and discipline in the school by changing the food the kids ate. Vending machines were replaced with water coolers; hamburgers and French fries were taken off the menu and replaced with fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grain breads and a salad bar. With the departure of junk food, she also saw the departure of vandalism, litter and the need for police patrolling her hallways. The students were calm, socially engaged and focused on their schoolwork. Problems were minimal. And all Ms. Coenen did was change the menu! Please watch "Forks Over Knives" for FREE to learn more about the implications of a meat-based diet vs a plant-based diet. Go to and do yourself and your family a favor! & Dr. Antonia Demas conducted a pilot program for youthful offenders at Bay Point School, a controlled residence for select male juvenile delinquents. Incorporating the principles of her curriculum, Demas' results were astounding: Grade point averages increased, athletic performance and strength improved, aggressive behavior declined, acne cleared, excess weight came down, and every single one of the participants reported general improvements in well-being.

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