Feds find merit in Asian students’ claims against Philly school


by Jeff Gammage and Kristen A. Graham

Federal investigators have informed the Philadelphia School District that they found merit in the claims of Asian students who said they were abused at South Philadelphia High School.

The school exploded in racial violence on Dec. 3, when 30 Asians were attacked during a daylong series of assaults carried out by groups of mostly African American classmates.

In a letter to the district, the Justice Department advised school officials to take steps to settle the matter. It was not immediately clear what form a settlement might take, though it would require the district to improve the treatment of Asian students, who say they have been mocked, harassed, and beaten at the school.

The action follows a formal civil rights complaint filed in January by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, an advocacy group. Such complaints do not result in criminal penalties, but can bring broad changes provided that violations are found to have occurred.

“The School District of Philadelphia acknowledges receiving from the U.S. Department of Justice a letter regarding the complaint filed against the district,” district general counsel Michael Davis said in response to questions from The Inquirer. “The district is presently engaged in discussions with the Department of Justice seeking to resolve this matter amicably. Because of the ongoing discussions, the district will not comment further on this matter.”

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said the legal nature of the discussions limited how much she could say, but added that she was prepared to make changes.

“I’m certainly willing and anxious to bring whatever challenges and issues there are to closure, so that all the children there can get a great education in a great environment,” she said. “Anything we can do to make the climate at South Philadelphia High one that’s conducive to all student learning is something we want to do.”

The changes would be a victory for Asian students and their advocates, who say complaints of harassment and physical violence were often ignored. The complaint cited at least 26 assaults against Asians during the 2008-09 school year alone, and charged that district inaction led to the violence of Dec. 3.

School administrators insist that they took all allegations seriously and disciplined students when appropriate.

A Justice Department representative said the agency had no comment.

Cecilia Chen, an attorney with the Asian civil rights group, praised the government’s action “to address the harassment against Asian students. The School District has turned a blind eye to violence against Asian immigrant students for too long.”

She said she hoped discussions of solutions would include students, parents, and Asian advocates.

Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United (AAU), said the Justice Department action “validates the experiences of so many immigrant Asian youth at the school, whose stories the people and administrators at the district, all the way to the top, just refused to hear.”

AAU is among several groups that have coalesced around the violence at the school, collectively naming themselves South Philadelphia High School Asian Student Advocates.

The district has hired high-powered outside counsel to respond to the complaint, retaining Trujillo Rodriguez & Richards, a firm founded by former city solicitor and assistant U.S. attorney Kenneth I. Trujillo. The lead attorney on the case is Pedro Ramos, a former president of the city Board of Education.

Efforts to reach Ramos were unsuccessful.

News of the Justice Department letter comes as South Philadelphia High readies for a new school year with a new principal, its fifth in six years. Southern, as the school is known, has long failed to meet state academic standards and has been labeled “persistently dangerous” under federal law.

The settlement talks indicate an approaching end to a seven-month investigation.

Similar cases generally conclude in one of three ways: The subject of the complaint enters into a written agreement with the government to fix certain deficiencies; the Justice Department requires the signing of a formal consent decree, a court-monitored settlement backed by the threat of a lawsuit; or the Justice Department opts to sue to force change.

The third outcome is rare. For entities such as the School District, there is little gain in battling the federal government.

It’s unclear precisely when or how the federal findings will be made public. Investigators have spoken with dozens of teachers, students, and staff at Southern.

The complaint claimed the district acted with “deliberate indifference” to the harassment of Asian students and “intentional disregard” to their welfare.

District officials have called the allegations in the complaint outrageous and hurtful, and said staff and administrators have strived to better South Philadelphia High.

After Dec. 3, the district spent $689,000 to install 126 security cameras, and reports of student-on-student assaults dropped dramatically. Students say all know they’re being watched at the school, which is 70 percent African American, 18 percent Asian, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent white.

Officials assigned more school police officers, set up diversity training, and announced the formation of a task force on “Racial and Cultural Harmony.”

This month, the district opened the Welcome and Enrollment Center for Multilingual Families, where parents and children who are learning English can find educational resources. The district plans to create three “newcomer learning academies” for new immigrants.

The situation at South Philadelphia High has drawn parallels to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., where violence against Asians prompted a Justice Department investigation and, ultimately, a court order to fix the problem.

Federal officials found that Asian students faced “severe and pervasive” harassment at Lafayette, nicknamed “Horror High” after two dozen assaults in 2002, including the beating of the valedictorian.

School officials agreed to make major changes in a 2004 consent decree. However, violence persisted. Poor graduation rates and high administrative turnover led New York education officials to close Lafayette at the end of last school year.