The U.S. Justice Department today announced that it filed a settlement agreement in federal district court with the School District of Philadelphia in order to address the severe harassment against Asian students at South Philadelphia High School (SPHS). Today’s development is the result of an administrative complaint filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) in January and subsequent investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. AALDEF’s complaint charged the School District of Philadelphia and SPHS with discrimination against Asian students on the basis of race and national origin in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In a complementary move, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), the state’s civil rights agency, ratified a conciliation agreement, substantively identical to the Justice Department’s agreement. The PHRC’s agreement settles complaints, filed by AALDEF, on behalf of three organizations and five individual students against the School District for failing to address longstanding problems of anti-Asian and anti-immigrant harassment at SPHS.
The complaints were triggered by events on December 3,, 2009 in which large numbers of Asian immigrant students from SPHS were assaulted in and around the school throughout the day. The attacks followed years of harassment against Asian students at SPHS in which school and district officials repeatedly turned a blind eye. In the days following the attacks, over 50 Asian students participated in an eight-day boycott to protest the unsafe school environment and indifference of school officials to racial harassment.
The Justice Department’s and PHRC’s agreements mean that the School District will be monitored at both the federal and state levels for improving conditions at SPHS. AALDEF Staff Attorney Cecilia Chen said: “The School District of Philadelphia is finally being held accountable for years of indifference to the serious and ongoing harassment of Asian immigrant students. It is unconscionable that any child should have to endure the levels of harassment that Asian students at SPHS have experienced.”
Under the terms of the two and one-half year agreements, the School District is responsible for making significant improvements at SPHS, long sought by AALDEF and local advocates. These include developing new anti-harassment policies; educating students and staff on multiculturalism and diversity; providing interpretation and translation to immigrant students and their families; and developing clear safety and emergency response plans.
The Justice Department’s and PHRC’s agreements come as welcome news to Asian students, parents and community leaders who sought to create safer learning environments for Asian immigrant students at SPHS. In the year following the December 3rd assaults, Asian students, with the support of local community groups – Asian Americans United, Boat People SOS, Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia – and AALDEF, have worked tirelessly to bring attention to the anti-Asian and anti-immigrant violence at SPHS.
Chen continued: “This is a momentous occasion for the students, their families and the supporters – their voices have finally been heard. These agreements send an important message to schools across the country that every child, regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin, is entitled to a safe and equitable education.”