District OKs settlement over S. Philly High violence

    Philadelphia school district officials have settled a civil rights complaint over racial violence at South Philadelphia High School.
    The settlement results from an investigation by both the federal Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

    It comes one year after more than two dozen Asian students were attacked by a group of African-American students. And it marks the one-year anniversary of an eight-day boycott by the students who were protesting what they called district officials’ refusal to acknowledge the attacks as racist.

    Asian leaders pointed to decades of inaction by the district to combat racially motivated violence against Asians. But today, students and advocates are hailing the settlement as a victory.

    Activist Helen Gym told members of the School Reform Commission that the district’s initial response was egregious.

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    “This consent decree demonstrates that this violence at South Philadelphia was racial. The focus of our complaint was never about problematic young people but about a school district that failed to do everything in its power to insure a safe environment for learning.”

    The settlement requires the district to implement an anti-harassment policy at the school and provide training to students and staff. The district must also hire a consultant and report regularly to the Department of Justice and state officials.

    Stephen Glassman, chairman of the state Human Relations Commission, said district officials were originally reluctant to admit to systemic problems. Since then, they’ve had a change of heart.

    “Earlier, a year ago, there was some resistance on their part,” he said. “But I think once they saw all of the allegations and the complaints and the evidence that built up, I think they maybe became aware of problems that were either larger or more intense than they had originally thought was the case.”

    Glassman says the settlement agreement will avert a public hearing.

    He said much credit for the school’s turnaround should go to the new principal Otis Hackney. Hackney said he began by setting clear expectations.

    “On the surface, we’re OK right now,” he said. “But I know we need to go deeper and find out what systems exist in the school that perpetuate that atmosphere.”

    For students such as Wei Chen, the past year has been a life-changer.

    “A year ago, I was just a small leader,” he said. “But now, I’m the student organizer.”

    The settlement requires approval by a federal judge. 

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