By Jeff Gammage -Inquirer Staff Writer
On March 16, ninth grader Lindi Liu was exiting a bathroom stall at South Philadelphia High when another boy kicked the door inward, bashing him in the head.
As Liu picked himself up off the floor, he could hear the boy laughing.
The incident lasted only seconds, but for Liu, a 16-year-old immigrant from China, the consequences have been profound.
His vision frequently turns blurry, to where he can’t count fingers held in front of his face. He forgets conversations that occurred moments earlier, and sometimes struggles to identify everyday objects, like the chicken on his dinner plate. He gets sudden nose bleeds.
District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the school inquiry showed Liu was injured carelessly but unintentionally. The boy was kicking the doors of the stalls in turn, and did not realize Liu was there, he said.
“It seems it was not intended as an assault or intended to injure anyone,” he said.
However, a student who was in the bathroom at the time contradicted that.
Dong Chen, 19, said the assailant kicked only one of five doors, the one with a broken lock, behind which stood Liu. Chen said when the door hit Liu’s head, “we could hear it, it was so loud. Pow!”
Liu’s parents are frightened for their son’s health.
“I’m so upset,” Liu’s mother, Hui Qin Chen, said through a translator as she wiped tears from her eyes. “I don’t know what to do.”
On Dec. 3, South Philadelphia High generated national headlines when Asian students suffered a daylong series of assaults carried out by groups of mostly African American classmates. About 50 students staged a weeklong boycott.
School district administrators suspended 19 students, installed more security cameras, and added school police. The district report on the violence, issued Feb. 23, noted that following that response, “there has been no repeat of the Dec. 3 activities.”
But Liu’s case illustrates that violence continues against Asian students.
“Very little has changed in how the school handles immigrant students’ concerns, and how they handle incidents of anti-Asian violence and harassment,” said Cecilia Chen, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed a federal complaint against the district.
The district inquiry blamed the Dec. 3 violence on rumors that followed an altercation between Asian and African American students the previous day. But Asians say that they have been abused for years – and that administrators ignored their complaints.
Community advocates say they know of at least seven post-Dec. 3 incidents against Asians, including three assaults.
School district records differ: Since Dec. 3, only one serious incident that occurred in or around the school involved an Asian victim – Liu.
The Inquirer reviewed school reports, medical records, and a police letter that outlined Liu’s case. Since being injured, Liu said, he has struggled to perform simple mental tasks, like counting the money in his wallet.
“My eyes are having problems,” he said. “They get very unclear.”
“He’ll say, ‘Mom, I can’t see right now,’ ” his mother said. “He forgets things… . When I ask him to do something, he’ll walk over there and ask me, ‘What did you want me to do?’ “
Liu was examined at Chinatown Medical Services on March 25, where the doctor wrote he had blurred vision and should be seen at a hospital. The next day, Liu underwent a CT scan of the head. A week later, a sudden loss of vision sent him to the emergency room for a second CT scan. More tests are pending.
Liu worries that his condition is permanent – and that he could be hurt even worse at school. “I have this great fear that someone will attack me again,” he said.
Philadelphia police identified Liu’s assailant, a 16-year-old student. They advised Liu’s parents to pursue a complaint process aimed at mediation, common in simple-assault cases.
Liu and his older brother arrived at South Philadelphia High around Dec. 7. Liu said he received no orientation or guidebook, and no adult mentioned the violence of the previous week.
The absence of a translated guide to explain school-safety procedures to new students was among the complaints filed with the Justice Department on Jan. 19.
Asians make up 18 percent of the students at the school, which is 70 percent African American, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent white.
Liu’s father had left Fuzhou, China, for the United States, to work and save money so his wife and sons could follow. The family spent about 13 years apart, typical among Chinese immigrant students. Today the parents run a small Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia.
The witness, ninth grader Dong Chen, said that on March 16, he, Liu, and a third Chinese friend went to the five-stall bathroom. The youths took the middle three stalls, with Liu in the center, he said.
Two African American students entered. There was no kick to the first door, which was unlocked, Chen said, and no kick to the third door, his stall, which was locked.
“They only kicked the middle door,” he said.
When he heard the crash, Chen said, he rushed out and saw the youths, who “burst out laughing,” he said.
Chen said one boy laughingly shook his leg as if to indicate, “That really hurt.”
Liu said that when he fell, he injured his foot and elbow. He left the bathroom, borrowed a cell phone, and dialed his mother, who recalled him saying, “Mom, I’m attacked.” She asked if he had hit anyone. “No,” Liu responded. “I was in the bathroom, and they kicked the door at me, and I hit my head and now I’m bleeding.”
Chen said she and her husband hurried to the school, but were turned away by a security officer. No one fetched a translator.
Liu, unsure what to do, returned to class. When he got home he had a headache, and that night he suffered one of what have become recurring nosebleeds.
The next day, after a call from a bilingual counselor, Liu’s mother went to the school about 1:30, but was again refused admittance, she said.
Inside the building, Liu reported the incident to school authorities. The school police contacted the Philadelphia police.
That day or the next – the timing is disputed – the parents received a second call from the school, this time from a staffer who spoke only English, the family said. Liu’s parents had a coworker translate. They understood they were being asked to return to the school again, to meet with administrators.
That’s when Liu’s brother contacted Xu Lin, an organizer with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. Lin agreed to go to the school with the family the next day.
Gallard, the spokesman, said the district reviewed videotapes of people who entered the front door of the school on the days in question, and Liu’s mother did not appear on them. The school also interviewed security staff and found no evidence a visitor was kept out, he said.
The tapes capture the interior of the main entrance, he said. The district did not review video of other exterior doors. The mother could have attempted to enter through a different door, he said.
“We cannot explain how Liu’s mom would be turned away,” Gallard said. “We found that complaint to be worrisome. We just do not turn parents away… . We want to know if the parent can tell us exactly who they spoke to.”
On March 19, Liu, his mother, and Lin met with administrators. They said they were told Liu’s assailant would be suspended and transferred to another school.
Gallard said the family may have misunderstood. At that time, the inquiry was ongoing, and no administrator could have known the result. The school had begun disciplinary proceedings against the student, which terminated when he tr
ansferred out of the district on March 22, Gallard said.
On March 26, city Police Detective Danielle Tolliver wrote to Liu’s parents, advising them that if they wished to proceed, they should file a private criminal complaint. Her letter identified the “offender,” whose name is being withheld by The Inquirer because of his age.
In Philadelphia, cases of simple assault – involving no obvious, serious injury – typically are referred for private complaints, law enforcement officials said.
Tolliver’s letter advised the parents to contact Philadelphia Family Court. If that office accepted their complaint, it would schedule a mediation hearing. If mediation failed, the letter said, the case might be referred to the District Attorney’s Office, which would decide whether to proceed with a prosecution.
The detective’s letter was written in English, which Liu’s family could not understand. Once the letter was translated, Liu’s mother was disappointed, not seeing how mediation could be useful.
Police say the complaint process can help victims. In some cases, offering records that show internal injuries can result in more-serious charges being lodged.
“I would advise anybody that’s a victim of criminal simple assault to follow up, in this case with the juvenile process, with a private criminal complaint,” said Capt. Larry Nodiff, commander of South Detective Division.
Liu’s mother said her priority is her son’s health. An advocate agency, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, is helping the family file papers with the crime-victims compensation fund to pay medical bills.
“As parents we’re very, very concerned Lindi is about to lose his vision,” Chen said, wiping her eyes. “The doctor says there’s no damage outside, but there’s probably damage inside… . I just want my son to be well.”