Heroes: South Philly High’s Protesters

News that Asian students were being viciously beaten within the halls of South Philadelphia High stunned the city. But the real story is the courage of the teens who banded together to stand up to their attackers

Wei’s parents had seen enough.

“Stop this,” his father said. No one in the family was a naturalized citizen yet. Each held only a green card. If their son caused trouble—is boycotting school even legal? — they thought he could risk much more than his education. “The government will send you back to China,” his father said.

Wei appealed to his parents’ Buddhist background, with its emphasis on benevolence. “If I don’t do this,” he said, “more people will suffer.” His parents relented.

WHEN LEADERS IN Philadelphia’s Asian community called a meeting to discuss the events at South Philly High, Wei Chen spoke with thoughtfulness: This is about more than race, he said. After all, a handful of white students — and apparently even one Asian student — had contributed to the bullying. And, likewise, some black students had made valiant efforts to protect the immigrants.

To his mind, he said, the black students who perpetrated the attacks were, themselves, victims in a broader sense. “Now they have a record, and are more likely to go to jail later,” he said. “They are victims of the school, too.” So the boycott, he said, should not draw attention to the classmates who had abused them, but to systemic apathy, incompetence and bias among the administrators themselves.

More than 50 Asian students joined Wei in protest over the next eight days. They met together in Chinatown for the duration of the school day, doing classwork and refining their approach to the problem of violence. They held rallies, carrying signs that demanded “No More Violence in Our Schools.” They marched to the school wearing bandannas over their faces, afraid of revenge — either schoolyard or –administrative — if they were recognized. Yet they put themselves at huge risk.

In one sense, they succeeded in spectacular fashion: The atrocities of December 3rd gained national attention, which placed enormous pressure on school administrators to, at last, do something. They installed 126 new security cameras throughout the school. They brought in extra security and counselors. And maybe most significantly, principal LaGreta Brown resigned in May, after it was revealed that her state principal’s certification had lapsed. Only the passage of time will reveal whether they succeeded in a larger sense. Security cameras and counselors may help deter outright abuse in the hallways at one school for the moment, but as the current generation of emboldened students moves on from secondary school, the question arises: Will shamed administrators, and a scandalized public, remember what happened here? In the often lonely existence of immigrant children, will school remain a place of mental and physical torture, or become a sanctuary for learning?

Wei graduated this summer. But he still feels the work at South Philly High remains unfinished. “We’ve done something,” he says, suddenly emotional. “But I would like to see how the school manages the school climate. The way they use punishment and mediation. I want to see the school’s efforts to blend the students, not just to show other people, but to change the school climate.”