Ackerman's dithering has shaken confidence

Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman (center) leaving a city Human Relations Commission meeting on racially charged violence last month.
Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman (center) leaving a city Human Relations Commission meeting on racially charged violence last month.

The schools chief's answer to racial strife was tepid.

Posted: January 12, 2010

Someone needs to tell Philadelphia schools Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman to get her head out of the sand.

Ackerman's handling of the racial attacks on Asian American students at South Philadelphia High School has been a debacle at best, calling into question her ability to lead the failing school district. Her slow, tepid response made the crisis worse, and it increased fears among Asian American parents and students that the district can't keep its kids safe.

In early December, a series of fights took place in and out of the school. About 30 Asian American kids were punched and smacked for no apparent reason other than the way they look. A handful needed hospital treatment for minor injuries.

In some instances, groups of students went from class to class looking for Asian students to beat up. One student said security officers at the school directed some Asian students into a lunchroom, where they were attacked. Other Asian students said their black classmates told them to go back to their country and hurled slurs at them such as "Dragon Ball" and "Bruce Lee."

Instead of apologizing immediately and moving quickly to defuse the tensions and correct the problem, Ackerman has mostly dodged responsibility and shifted the blame. At every turn, she has appeared more and more tone-deaf and in need of sensitivity training.

It took Ackerman eight days to get around to visiting the school. Six days passed before she publicly responded to the incident. Even then, she offered a lukewarm apology in prepared remarks and took a defensive posture, saying the school district had been asked to "single-handedly solve the problems of violence and racial discord."

Hey, Arlene, no one is asking you to bring about world peace and end racism. But a little compassion and some reassurance that school safety is a top priority would be nice.

The racial tensions between blacks and Asians at South Philadelphia High have been bubbling for years, and they have been mostly ignored by the district. Before the fights took place, members of the Asian American community tried to meet with the new principal but were blown off. It turns out that the principal had been pushed out of the school she was running in Atlantic City, raising questions about why she was even hired in Philadelphia.

Running South Philadelphia High requires a seasoned pro with the ability to manage a big, complex, urban high school. The majority of the school's students are black, but there are also a number of Asian immigrants whose first language isn't English. They are made fun of and harassed while school officials look the other way.

After the attacks, district officials claimed violence at the school had dropped 55 percent this year. That information turned out to be wrong: Assaults at the school had actually increased by 32 percent.

Then district officials said the attacks were sparked by an Asian American student who had jumped an African American student earlier in the week. But the incidents turned out to be unrelated.

After about 50 Asian students began boycotting the school, fearing for their safety, Ackerman initially rebuffed their request for a meeting. She finally met with them almost two weeks after the attacks.

At the meeting, Ackerman took a mostly harsh tone, ordering the kids back to school. Afterward, she accused the media of sensationalizing the incident.

Last week, the superintendent showed up uninvited at a meeting called by the state Human Relations Commission to hear from members of the Asian American community. She brought along a busload of kids from South Philadelphia High. Most of them were African American, and none of them were involved in the fights. This is akin to the head of US Airways showing up at a crash site with passengers from flights that landed on time.

At the meeting, Ackerman said the violence at the school was a result of a broader problem of violence and racism in the city. Basically, she said it was society's fault. Why not blame the entire solar system?

To be sure, there's some truth to what Ackerman was saying. But her tone and timing were off. The school district is responsible for what goes on under its roof. As the superintendent, Ackerman should be where the buck stops.

Instead, according to her spokeswoman, Ackerman said the issue was taking up too much of her time. But it's burning up so much time because Ackerman has severely mismanaged it. When dozens of kids get pummeled because of their race and boycott school, that should become a top priority.

Granted, the school district has taken some steps to bolster security. But Ackerman's bumbling and finger-pointing suggest she's just going through the motions. Instead of trying to blow off the problem and acting put out about it, Ackerman needs to fix it.


Paul Davies is The Inquirer's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at pdavies@phillynews.com.

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