Hyphen Magazine – On a cold December day in 2009, just weeks before Christmas, 15-year-old Trang Dang was walking home from school with her sister and eight friends, all recent Vietnamese immigrants. Also part of their group: the principal of their school.
Dang, who is 5’9” with a medium build and a dimpled, contagious smile, asked the principal to accompany them because she and the others were terrified by the intense bullying and violence against Asian students that had taken place earlier that day at their school, South Philadelphia High School. Midway through the walk, the principal, LaGreta Brown, disappeared, Dang said. “She walked to the corner with us and then we didn’t see her anymore,” Dang said. They debated whether to stay or continue walking. “Our friends said if we stand here, we’ll get in trouble,” Dang said. So they opted to try to make it home that day on their own.
They never did.
About half a block from school, a mob of at least two dozen students started chasing them. Dang was the first to be caught. She was punched in the face, shattering her glasses. “It was a quick hit and then they ran,” she said. “After I got hit, then my mind just went blank. I was crying. It wasn’t that painful, I think, but I don’t really remember. I think because I’ve tried to forget about that day.” The entire group was cornered, and all were hit. Dang still doesn’t know for sure why the principal seemingly left the group, and the school district denies this allegation.
Earlier that day, Duong Nghe Ly, a junior at the school, was waiting in the cafeteria line to get lunch. A large group of approximately 10 African American students appeared and attacked about three or four of his Chinese immigrant friends at the back of the line, punching and hitting them. “Around 40 other students cheered,” Ly said. An African American teacher intervened and physically used her body to protect the Chinese students, Ly added.
The entire day, roving gangs of high schoolers searched for and attacked Asian teenagers in a nightmarish ordeal. Most of the attacks took place on the premises of this poor school in south Philadelphia while teachers, security guards and other staff were present.
In total, at least 26 Asian immigrant students were physically assaulted in a series of violent conflicts. Thirteen Asian students ended up in the emergency room for injuries ranging from a broken nose to black eyes. One had to have surgery because he could no longer breathe through his nose. Community leaders believe more kids were attacked but didn’t report it for fear of retaliation.
“There isn’t really an event like December 3, where you had a number of students severely harassed and beaten in one day,” said Cecilia Chen of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, a Philadelphia-based community advocacy organization, described the melee as “off the charts in violence.”
Bullying includes verbal taunting, physical assaults, exclusion from a peer group, spreading rumors and cyber bullying – and Asian Americans are the most frequently bullied ethnic group, according to a 2004 study conducted with nearly 1,400 students. Psychologists believe Asians are particularly vulnerable to bullying because of stereotypes of being submissive. Sometimes the bullying of Asian youths also lends itself to an ugly cycle, where they become bullies of others.
For the teens at South Philadelphia High School, it took direct action and community support to turn the school around.
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By Helen I. Hwang