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.”

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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…