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

In the days following the subway attack, Wei formed a new group called the Chinese-American Student Association. He greeted all new Chinese immigrant students as they first arrived at the school, to help them make the transition. And he started keeping a notebook, detailing assaults on immigrant students. Before long, he had filled it with the meticulous strokes of Mandarin script, ready for the moment when the world would, at last, pay attention.    

December 2nd last year. It’s unclear what, exactly, or why. But the incident, like a match tossed and forgotten, lit an inferno that eventually consumed the whole school.

According to reports filed by the school police at South Philly High, the spark may have been this: About 1:30 p.m., a Vietnamese student bumped a black student. That student and his friends viewed this as a direct challenge to fight after school, which led to a standoff between black students and Vietnamese students in the hallway.

School police arrived to find a crowd forming. They took two black students into one room and two Asian students into another, for questioning. They ended up handcuffing the two black students, who were, the officers said, beyond control.

After the final bell, a group of black students attacked several Asian students on Broad Street near the front of the school.

Early the next morning, December 3rd, according to statements by students and teachers, groups of black students roamed the halls, scanning classrooms and apparently searching for Asian students. About 8:45 a.m., one such group found a particular Asian student—one who had been the target of previous scuffles — in room 424. When class was dismissed, they confronted him and beat him in what was, apparently, a case of mistaken identity.

About 10:30 a.m., eight Vietnamese kids made their way down to the first-floor office of the school police sergeant in charge of security. They felt threatened, they told him. They wanted to go home.

The sergeant decided to escort them back upstairs to the second floor, where someone in the administration could handle the students’ request. Before they left the first floor, though, they met a band of seven or eight black students coming down the stairs. When they saw the Asian students, they started shouting, and made a move toward them despite the sergeant. He yelled at the aggressors, and most retreated; the sergeant did restrain one, though, after he refused to return to class.

Principal LaGreta Brown heard some sort of disturbance on her walkie-talkie and walked up to the second floor. Brown had come to South Philly High at the beginning of the school year, arriving from New Jersey with a history of trouble. In 2006, as principal at Atlantic City High School, she received a vote of “no confidence” from her faculty after allegations she mistreated students and staff. Then the state attorney general tried to pull her administrative license after charging her with endangering students when, during a small fire at the school, she ordered that the fire alarm be dismantled; those charges were later dismissed. (Brown declined an interview request for this story, saying, “Maybe later.”)