"I want the students to be prepared. I want them to know what to expect," said Xu Lin, an organizer with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., who helped lead last week's three-hour training program.
When school starts, South Philadelphia High will be led by its fifth principal in six years, burdened by academic failure and outfitted with extensive new security and programming.
Last week, school administrators held new-student orientation, a day complete with cheerleaders in uniform and volleyball-team hopefuls knocking a ball around the gym.
The Asian session was a study in contrast. At FACTS charter school in Chinatown, three dozen students from Myanmar, China, Nepal, Vietnam, and elsewhere gathered to listen and talk.
"You guys are walking into the continuing story," Nancy Nguyen, head of the local chapter of Boat People SOS, told the students. "We don't know if the school is better. There are a lot of changes, but we don't know if it's better."
The changes include security cameras and programming additions such as an Asian arts initiative and an in-school center for immigrants. A new antiharassment policy is in the works. The Justice Department, which recently informed the district it found merit to the Asian students' civil-rights complaint, could impose more change.
At FACTS, organizers explained what harassment looks and sounds like, a raw introduction to students new to American culture and schools. Harassment, students heard, can be based on the place of your birth, the accent of your speech, or the shape of your eyes.
The instruction cut close to the bone, particularly when the leaders distributed a list of racial slurs and told the students: It's wrong. And you need to know that slurs can escalate quickly and violently.
That's common knowledge to children raised in America. But immigrants can be too limited in English to recognize racist language - and the danger it may portend.
Most of the students were heading into ninth grade at the school, which is 18 percent Asian and 70 percent African American. Some were hearing for the first time that Asians could be targets.
"If they come to beat us up, I'll just go to the principal," said Ghanashyam Gautam, 14, who emigrated from Nepal two years ago.
New principal Otis Hackney battled through rush-hour traffic so he could attend.
"You all know what happened last year much better than I," Hackney told the students, his words translated and electronically transmitted to headsets. "My pledge is to make sure nothing like that ever, ever happens again."
If something happens and students feel the staff is not listening, they should come directly to him, he said. If they can't speak English, they should still come to him - he'll see they're upset and find a translator.
"I am your principal," Hackney said, biting off each word. "I'm not asking you to trust me from Day One. But I am asking for the opportunity to earn your trust."
'Let us know'
The training program broke into subgroups. In one, a dozen students from Nepal squeezed around a table, all eyes focused on Nguyen, the Boat People SOS leader.
"I want to let you know what happened," she began, telling the story of Dec. 3, ending with how Asian students stayed out of school.
"They got suspended?" one boy asked.
"No, they boycotted," Nguyen answered.
"What," another boy inquired, "is a boycott?"
The Asian students stood up for themselves, she said.
A discussion ensued in Nepalese. One boy wanted to know, if someone punches him, what should he do? Run away?
The first thing, Nguyen answered, is to get to a safe place. Write down everything that happened. And call one of the Asian leaders.
"It's important for you guys to let us know if something happens," Nguyen said.
Easing the fear
The training program was set up by the South Philadelphia High School Asian Student Advocates, a coalition of advocacy organizations.
At times, the students' moods turned somber, as if they were asking themselves: What am I getting into at the school? At other moments, their teenage buoyancy rose, girls sharing cups of salt-and-vinegar potato chips and boys poking one another.
"Last year, I feel like when I go to school it was scary all the time. This year it's going to be better," said Meh Sha Lin, a senior whose family fled Myanmar for a refugee camp in Thailand, coming here in 2007.
In an interview, Hackney was asked if the session was a plus or a minus, positive because students got safety information, negative because they needed it.
"You have to put it in context of what happened last year, and understanding student apprehensions and fears," he said. "I can understand that. That's why it's important for me to be here."
One girl, a new junior, said learning what to do and whom to call had made her confident, not fearful.
"I learned to protect myself," she said.
Still, she declined to be identified by name or homeland. If people knew her, she said, trouble might follow.
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.