Asian students praised for role in 2 Philly school settlements

"It started with the voices of the students," Helen Gym of Asian Americans United told the Pa. Human Relations Commission.
"It started with the voices of the students," Helen Gym of Asian Americans United told the Pa. Human Relations Commission.
Posted: December 21, 2010

Much of the credit for two landmark settlements to battle racial bias, Chairman Stephen Glassman told spectators at the state Human Relations Commission meeting on Monday, goes to people who weren't in the room:

Asian students at South Philadelphia High School.

It was the quiet power of their stories, born of violence and harassment, and their "extraordinary courage" and "guts" in coming forward that led officials to act decisively.

Once the students described how they were abused at school, "we knew we had to do something," Commissioner M. Joel Bolstein said.

The meeting was during school hours, so no students were present. But for an hour, the commissioners, staff, community advocates, and city school officials praised two nearly identical settlements announced Wednesday. The School District settled complaints filed with the commission and the federal government stemming from violence on Dec. 3, 2009, when 30 Asian students were attacked by groups of mostly African American classmates.

The settlements mandate broad changes in how the district handles complaints of harassment and violence.

"I'm glad we came to a settlement, but the work is just beginning," School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said after addressing the commission. "We have a lot of work to do."

It would be easy to read the federal settlement and conclude that it was 30 pages of legalese. In fact, line after line speaks directly to specific cases of anti-Asian harassment - none more loudly than that involving a Vietnamese immigrant student, Hao Luu.

His name is never mentioned, but provisions for translators and parental notifications help address what befell him in a case that began in accusation and ended with the district admitting its error.

"I think my situation might have had some effect, a little," Luu, now 18 and attending a different school, said during an interview.

Luu said he was glad the school had improved under a new principal, Otis Hackney, but said his harsh experience altered his life and disrupted his education.

The day before the violence erupted, Luu was followed after school by 10 to 15 students and beaten so badly that he vomited. The next morning, his grandmother Suong Nguyen went to the school and filed an incident report.

Neither she nor Luu was contacted by school administrators. Instead of being treated as a victim, Luu was accused as a perpetrator. During the next two months, he was ordered transferred from the school, despite having won his case at a disciplinary hearing, and accused of being a gang member, despite his family's denials.

At one point, officials accused Luu of taking part in a fight in Philadelphia in 2008, when he was living in Virginia. A notice of his suspension hearing went to his family in English, a language they struggle to understand.

District officials later acknowledged that Luu had no connection to street gangs, dropping the allegation they had used to ban him from the school.

Despite winning the right to return, Luu decided to transfer to a private school. More recently he transferred to Furness High, a city school.

Terms of the settlements require that cases involving those learning English - 19 percent of South Philadelphia High students - be handled in a different way.

To start, the Human Relations Commission settlement states, victims of racial harassment "ought not to be portrayed as perpetrators or gang members bearing equal guilt with their attackers."

Interpreters

The federal settlement says the district must ensure that interpreters are provided to English-language learners who complain of harassment. Interpreters also are to be made available when their parents meet with school staff.

If an English-language learner faces disciplinary action, interpretation must be provided at hearings and meetings. Parents must be notified - in their native language - of the translators' availability.

Starting next month, the school must choose those translators from a formal, pre-approved list - an important change. In the past, whoever was nearby and happened to speak the language might be pressed into service. That included students who often spoke little English themselves.

"You can see that a lot of the provisions are directly related to Hao's case," said Cecilia Chen, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the original civil-rights complaint with the Justice Department.

The government acted less than a year after receiving the complaint - lightning speed in these types of cases, which are rare in themselves. The other prominent example is Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., where violence against Asians prompted an investigation and, ultimately, a court order to fix the problem.

In Philadelphia, federal investigators moved aggressively to interview dozens of students, teachers, and staff after receiving the complaint in January.

By July, investigators had reached a conclusion: The district had deprived Asian students of equal protection under the law - guaranteed by the Constitution - by remaining "deliberately indifferent" to "severe and pervasive" harassment and violence.

Settlement drafts

The district was informed. Faced with a strong federal finding and the prospect of fighting the unlimited resources of the federal government, the district had little choice but to settle.

Drafts of a potential settlement began to be traded back and forth, a process that went on for much of the summer.

Asian groups insisted that any agreement contain language stating that the attacks were rooted in racial bias - a finding the district had discouraged, long maintaining that the events surrounding Dec. 3 represented general violence that could have occurred anywhere.

The School District denied that it was "deliberately indifferent" to Asian students' plight and admitted no wrongdoing.

The federal court will maintain jurisdiction over the settlement for 21/2 years. The government can seek to enforce the agreement in court if it believes the district is not in compliance.

Helen Gym of Asian Americans United spoke on behalf of several Asian American organizations at Monday's meeting, telling the commission that the settlements were the result of "a year of bruising struggle and painful polarization" with the School District.

"It started with the voices of the students," she said. "It is their voices that transformed a school and a city."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this story.

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