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

About a thousand students attend South Philly High. Eighteen percent are Asian, about 11 percent are white or Hispanic, and 70 percent are black. The school itself is roughly square, and occupies a full block at Broad and Snyder streets. Security guards patrolled the long halls on a schedule, Sommerkorn says, but the second floor — the floor for immigrant students — only had security in the morning. “These kids knew the schedule,” she says. “As soon as security left, boom, here they’d come.”

One day she went searching for the cafeteria and found it in the basement, behind a thick glass wall. She stepped toward the entrance, and another staff member stopped her: “Oh, going in, are you?”

“Yes,” she said. The woman gave her a look that delivered a clear message: We don’t go in.

Sommerkorn stepped inside and found chaos. “There was no security behind that wall,” she says. All the Asian students sat as close as possible to the outer glass wall: “They knew if they went any farther back, they would be attacked.” Sommerkorn made arrangements for Asian immigrants to come to her room during lunch instead.

The school’s administration treated immigrant students with apathy, she says. One day an assistant principal stopped her to address the Asian kids seeking refuge in her classroom during lunch. He asked, “Why do these kids get special treatment?”

Sommerkorn was dumbstruck for a moment, then said, “Because they’re getting attacked!”

Much of the staff at South Philly High seemed to have given in to the surrounding hostility. The pervasiveness of the violence — hearing it, seeing it, feeling it everywhere, all the time — wore down any resistance they might have once had. They couldn’t beat it, so they joined it. Eventually some Asian students reported staffers addressing them not by their proper names, but by “Hey, Chinese.” Or “Yo, Dragonball,” after the name of an Asian toy.

After a year, Sommerkorn decided to leave. She now works with international students at St. Joe’s University, but memories from South Philly High still rear up in her mind. She remembers one day in particular, when she walked down a hallway toward a tiny Asian immigrant girl. “Maybe 85 pounds,” she says. Suddenly a knot of black girls approached, and one of them punched the Asian girl in the face hard enough to drop her to the floor. “Clocked her.”

By the time Sommerkorn reached the small girl’s side, her attackers had taken off, leaving only the echo of laughter. Sommerkorn helped the girl to her feet, and as bad as the blow had been, the girl’s reaction as she walked away was somehow more disturbing: She didn’t complain, or ask for help from the school authorities. “She didn’t say anything,” Sommerkorn says. That reaction was typical among the immigrant children. “It was like they expected it. Because no one was listening to them.”

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  • Mark

    Hats off to Wei Chen for his courage and leadership. One question, though: Where are the parents of the violent bullies wreaking havoc in our schools, and are they being held accountable?

  • Alphonse

    I’m a student at Penn, and I’ve worked with these kids who are trying to provoke change. The sad thing is administrators are so worn out by the violence and the misbehavior, they seem to have given up on the possibility. And the parents of the bullies [most of which are black] either are non existent or don’t feel like their kids have done anything wrong. Even if the fights are taken out of the school they will undoubtedly resurface in the subways or on nearby streets where school officials can’t always be present.

  • J

    It may be a problem with the system, but if the offending students (whatever race, gender or creed) would rather commit criminal acts than act like responsible citizens, they should be treated as criminals. Maybe only then they will realize what goes around comes around,

    It is ridiculous that people who want to obtain an education spend more time being afraid of each school bell, and people who want to bully others are given a free pass. If anyone is receiving special treatment, it’s the bullies. Fix this, Phiadelphia. You should be embarassed!

  • Jennifer

    No!” they both said. In China, there was no such thing as civil disobedience. The very idea seemed absurd. Terrifying. “Just drop out,” his father told him, not because he didn’t value education, but because in China’s Communistic schools, there is no expectation of institutional change. Students fit in, or they drop out.

    If we look to the early roots of Mao’s communism and the later “Red Guard” and the young who stood up to Communist tanks in Tian An Men Square we come to understand that indeed, the Chinese young, when provoked hard enough… are strong enough to cause a revolution of tumultuous change… this is nothing new to their culture.

  • Donna

    I was sickened when I read this story. I can’t even imagine trying to go to school every day, knowing full well my physical well-being is in danger. Shame on the administration for allowing this to g

  • mike

    What a sickening story. The savages doing the beatings are nothing but criminals. And I don’t believe in making excuses for the “weary” staff. They chose to turn a blind eye.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • Rachel

    For those of you who say that these kids who bully should be treated like criminals, and then ask “where are their parents”, here are some thoughts:
    1) Kids should be treated like kids, not criminals. Rather than relegating these bullies to a life time of the institutionalized life that likely awaits them, how about something a zillion dollars cheaper and perhaps likely to change a kid’s life, like, say, ballet, boarding school, summer camp, SAT tutors….etc.
    2) The parents are probably very, very young and not prepared for parenting teenagers. Answer? I have no idea, but something different might not be a bad idea.

  • R

    I am Chinese, and I grew up in a racist suburb in the mid-west. My family had to move to San Francisco for safety reasons. I now live in Philly, and I thought it would be a safe place since it’s so cosmopolitan. But, this article shakes me to the core. After reading it, every time I look at a black person, I wonder, “Do you hate Asians, too? Are you going to try to beat me up the moment I walk down an alley? Are you a parent of a kid who likes to beat up Asian kids? Did you teach them to hate people like me?” It chagrins me to know that the Civil Rights movement, which worked so hard to free black people from oppression, means nothing to the black youth who are engaging in the beatings at Philadelphia High. Minorities should be helping minorities. In the mid-west, at least minorities would help one another.

  • Jenn

    First of all, the Phildelphia school system is a hot mess. South Philly High is just one school that is seeing the effects from the lack of resources, attention, etc. needed at inner-city schools. There is no accountability from the city to the school system. It’s ONE city and taxpayers pay for both city and school taxes. Where is the accountability from the local government? Where is the accountability from school officials? It starts from the top and trickles down (which reminds me, uh, do school officials even do a background check? WTF is up with LaGreta Brown? How the hell did she get the job, even after her past incidences??). African Americans were the crux of the segregation and violence during the Civil Rights Movement. Well, hello, Philly! Here it is again in 2010 but it’s now African Americans violating and discriminating Asian Americans. There needs to be change!

  • dawn

    To the author of this article:

    I appreciate your portrayal of Wei Chen and absolutely sympathize with his and his classmates’ plight—but seriously, the biased language and portrayal of the African American students in this school is misleading and reinforces negative and racist cultural stereotypes of African Americans as violent. For the first 8 pages we get sensational stories as to how “the black students” were terrorizing the Asians–and it isn’t until page *9* that, finally, we learn–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.” Really, the ones at fault are the adult administrators. Please be more culturally sensitive in your portrayals regarding race!

  • dawn

    To the author of this article:

    I appreciate your portrayal of Wei Chen and absolutely sympathize with his and his classmates’ plight—but seriously, the biased language and portrayal of the African American students in this school is misleading and reinforces negative and racist cultural stereotypes of African Americans as violent. For the first 8 pages we get sensational stories as to how “the black students” were terrorizing the Asians–and it isn’t until page *9* that, finally, we learn–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.” Really, the ones at fault are the adult administrators. Please be more culturally sensitive in your portrayals regarding race!

  • reggin

    niggers man…