The Center for Public Integrity: Asian students face racism, harassment at school. What would make it stop?

Image for The Center for Public Integrity: Asian students face racism, harassment at school. What would make it stop?

Anti-Asian hostility spiked amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s nothing new. Parents and students are breaking a generational cycle of silence, demanding that school districts act.

by Amritpal Kaur Sandhu-Longoria

Editor’s note: This story has graphic language and descriptions of racial slurs, harmful rhetoric and violence against Asians and other students of color attending public schools. If you need support or have experienced violence, discrimination, harassment or racism, find an organization that can help in this database.

Hai Au Huynh was fed up.

The 45-year-old Texas mother had been trying to reach a resolution with teachers and administrators for months after both her boys experienced anti-Asian racial harassment at their elementary school. Despite multiple emails, meetings and officially filed grievances, school officials would neither condemn the racist acts nor guarantee her boys any protection, she said.

On Nov. 13, she took the podium in front of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District board meeting in the Houston suburb, ready to share her story.

“My Asian-American children have been the target of several racist attacks in CFISD this past year. My 8- and 11-year-old should not have to repeatedly tell other children why it is wrong to use racist slurs,” she said.

Huynh told the board her boys had been called “ching-chong-wing-wong” on their entire bus ride home, an incident caught on video. After her older son and classmates commemorated their last day of school by signing each other’s shirts, he looked at the back of his own and discovered to his horror someone had drawn a swastika on it.

“The lack of accountability by CFISD is appalling. The district’s job is to protect all children, and it has failed miserably in that regard,” she said as she asked the board to grant a “stay away” order against the student who drew the swastika, a request school officials denied. “My children do not feel CFISD will keep them safe.”

The school district did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

The experiences of generations of Asian American and Pacific Islander children educated in U.S. public schools point to a pattern of racial harassment and bullying that is not fully reflected in data due to lack of reporting. Families who do report hate incidents are often not taken seriously enough for school officials to put a stop to it.

While past generations typically endured abuse without saying anything about it, the hostility fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed parents and students to break the pattern of silence.


Huynh knew this hate. As a child growing up in South Philadelphia, she’d seen and experienced it many times over. Now it was happening to her kids.

COVID-19 reinvigorated a dormant strain of anti-Asian thought, the kind of logic that regarded Asian Americans as strangers in their own country. As then-President Donald Trump popularized terms like “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu,” vitriol spread.

Rhetoric was having real-life consequences. A report by researchers at California State University, San Bernardino, found that anti-Asian hate crimes in the 16 largest U.S. cities rose 145% in 2020 – a year when overall hate crimes declined in those same places.


Data clues and glaring problems

The federal government requires schools to report racially motivated harassment and bullying, like what Huynh says her children experienced at Cypress-Fairbanks. The Department of Education also investigates complaints of civil rights violations in educational settings. And if an incident is deemed criminal, it may appear in nationwide databases tracking hate crimes.

But gaps separate the data from the reality students experience.


Bethany Li, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense Education Fund, said immigrants who feared government agencies in their country of origin may also avoid reporting to the FBI. And incidents like verbal harassment are so normalized in the U.S., she said, that people don’t always think to report them.

“There is going to be underreporting no matter what,” she said.



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