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.”