guest post: a new school year begins at south philly high

I'm on vacation! Taking a much-needed break. But don't worry. While I'm away, I've enlisted some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's Helen Gym of Asian American United talking about what's going on at South Philadelphia High.

Last week, I got my children ready for their first days of school - buying uniforms and supplies, planning lunch meals, and rushing through the waning days of summer. I also helped get another set of students ready for school but in a far different way.

SASA (South Phila. High Asian Student Advocates) - which includes the core organizations and individuals who have been actively working with students and families at the school around anti-Asian/anti-immigrant harassment - conducted a three-hour training for nearly 40 incoming students to South Philadelphia High School. (Read more about it here.)

It was a deeply moving event, with students and adults sharing their experiences of harassment, intimidation and even violence. It was a safe place, where students could express their fears and frustrations and ask questions. And it was an empowering space - co-led by current and former students who had challenged the District to fulfill its responsibility to stop the abuse of Asian immigrant youth.

It was a sobering event. We reviewed a list of racial slurs so new immigrant students would recognize them if they heard them; students witnessed a role play in the school cafeteria about harassment acted out by student organizers - observers were then asked how they would respond if they were the victims or bystanders; we went through steps about what to do if they were harassed or hurt at school. They went home with translated safety pamphlets.

And we went home with our prayers for a better school year.

It's been almost two years since 20 immigrant youth called together Asian American community leaders and demanded our attention to the violence at South Philadelphia High School. Over the past two years we've documented countless acts of shocking violence and harassment and, even worse, indifference, neglect, and later hostility and defensiveness from school and District officials. We've seen our children beaten and afraid; at least one student we worked with dropped out because of the violence. We've worked with parents who are fearful of their children being hurt and have been intimidated and silenced by a school administration that has sought to deny their stories.

It was all the more reason why the 8-day boycott last December by dozens of immigrant youth marked a watershed moment that will be remembered in our histories. Following a day-long assault on dozens of Asian youth and unimaginable neglect by school and district officials, these students stood up and said, "No more." And then they went out and organized, not only for themselves but also in coalition with youth of all races citywide to stop school violence and demand accountability from their School District.

This past summer has brought renewed hope to the struggle for racial justice at South Philadelphia High School. News reports indicate the U.S. Dept. of Justice has issued a "finding of merit" in a civil rights complaint filed by our lawyers at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

This finding is a major victory for students and community members, whose stories and experiences the District simply refused to hear. It's also a victory for immigrant students across the city. The DOJ's charge for the School District of Philadelphia to fix its problems is an important opportunity to substantively address anti-Asian/anti-immigrant harassment in our schools and ensure lasting and real change for every student across the District.

This year, South Philly High has a new principal who seems genuinely committed to the mission to change and improve the climate and conditions for every student at the school. Check out the principal's quotes and read this profile of one of South Philly's outstanding student organizers, Duong Ly. Both are shining examples of South Philly's potential future.

But we're also sober about the challenges ahead.

It's unfortunate that with the threat of federal action looming, the District still talks of "closure" rather than of substantive solutions and appropriates language usually reserved for victims of a situation. They confuse announcements with achievement and proclaim zero tolerance for violence at a school where families and community members have endured a history of violence. A pastiche of programs which contain the word Asian is another typical response. We don't need to be pandered to. What we need is significant dialogue with the District and a demonstrated commitment to addressing the root causes of racial bias throughout the school.

Asian Americans are a relatively small population in Philadelphia, and we're still dealing with the District's fractious behavior. The highest levels of District administration manipulated racially divisive language, fueling efforts to cast students and community advocates who raised concerns as biased against African Americans. They created groups and processes that deliberately excluded student boycotters and community advocates working with them. They engaged in intimidation and retaliatory tactics toward students and families and their supporters, regardless of their race. They scapegoated Asian immigrant victims, even charging two Asian student victims with instigating the Dec. 3 violence and forcing them out of the school. They created confusion and suspicion by arguing that Asian students had brought the violence on themselves, alleging gang allegiances and group in-fighting without any substantiation - and all as recently as the beginning of the summer. As bad as the events of December 3rd were, it was the egregious conduct of school officials that warranted intervention by federal and state agencies.

A new school year does begin at South Philadelphia High School and for young immigrant students all across the country. If there's a lesson to be learned from the courage of young people who stood up to injustice in this city, we hope that it's to renew the call to all of us to recognize and address anti-Asian violence in this millennium. A quarter century after Vincent Chin's death, what's happening in Philadelphia and the attacks against Asian elderly in San Francisco demonstrate the on-going struggle for communities to have racial violence recognized and addressed in a substantive way and being vigilant about the need for honest assessment of the racial dynamics in that struggle.

It's also a call to engage with our schools and the young people in them. It's a new generation of Asian American activism coming up and we owe it to them to show a justice minded and fiercely loving community.

As Duong Ly wrote in his op-ed in this week's Philadelphia Inquirer:

"Getting a good education in a safe school should be a right, not a privilege. We never thought we would have to fight for that right, but we are glad we did."

Many thanks to all of AAM's readers for your support! Read more at Asian Americans United.

Helen Gym is a board member at Asian Americans United where she's worked on campaigns for immigrant rights, community and economic development and youth leadership initiatives. You can reach her at aau@aaunited.org.

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