PHILADELPHIA – City school district officials agreed Wednesday to state and federal oversight for the next 2 1/2 years to address anti-Asian violence at a troubled high school that prompted a student boycott and a Justice Department investigation.
The city's School Reform Commission unanimously agreed to the consent decree involving South Philadelphia High School, where 30 Asian students were injured in racially motivated attacks last year.
The school district acknowledged no wrongdoing in signing the settlements with both the Justice Department and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, but agreed to 27 pages of reforms and reporting requirements. The oversight will be in place through June 2013.
For the first time, Asian-American activists said, high school officials will be held responsible for keeping students safe from racial and ethnic violence.
About 22 percent of the student body is Asian, some of them new immigrants.
Wei Chen, 19, who graduated from the school in June, endured two attacks in the three years he spent there after coming to the U.S. from a small town in China.
He reported the first attack in 2007, but said nothing was done. So two years later, he helped organize a student boycott after five friends were attacked by fellow students on the subway. Now a community college student, he passes the high school every day — and feels a sense of pride.
"We got new leadership now," said Chen, referring to principal Otis Hackney, who has earned high marks from the Asian-American community since taking over in May.
"I learned students are not kids anymore. We are the youth advocates. We are the organizers, the future," Chen said.
About 70 percent of the students are black at the high school, where an English as a Second Language program draws immigrants from South Philadelphia, Chinatown and other parts of the city.
Asian students have complained in recent years of relentless bullying, primarily by black students, and said school officials turned a blind eye to their pleas for help.
The school suspended about 10 students after the December 2009 attacks, while increasing police patrols and installing dozens of new security cameras to watch the halls.
Community organizer Helen Gym of Asian Americans United called the student-on-student violence appalling — but said the yearlong inaction of school officials stung even more.
"The focus of our (federal) complaint was never about problematic young people," she told Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and other board members Wednesday. "As appalling as the December (2009) attacks on Asian youth were, it was truly the egregious conduct of school officials that warranted ... the federal intervention."
Hackney said he is working to rebuild the trust of the various immigrant student groups, not all of whom are comfortable reporting problems to authorities.
Things are far from perfect, he said Wednesday. But he no longer sees Asian-American students walking through school with their heads down.
"On the surface, we're OK right now, but I know we need to go deeper," Hackney said. "I see Asian students walking the hallways with their heads up, smiling with each other, laughing, looking like normal students. They may be within their own ethnic group, because of the language barrier. (But) before they were trying to hide."
Chen, though no longer a student, spoke excitedly about how he recently pored over the student handbook.
For the first time, he said, a version was distributed in Chinese.