Looking back on racial violence at South Philly High

by on Dec 03 2012
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Students protesting outside an SRC meeting in December 2009. This photo appears at "We Cannot Keep Silent," a current exhibit at the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

by Duong Nghe Ly

Today marks the three-year anniversary of the day that changed my life.

On Dec. 3, 2009, I was at South Philadelphia High School when Asian immigrant students were targets of racially charged attacks that lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., after school. My friends and I received little to no help from the school, even though many of us had asked for protection or permission to leave early. At the end of the day, 30 Asian immigrant students had been physically attacked, 13 of whom went to the hospital to seek treatment. I could not help feeling frightened and angry at the indifference and irresponsibility of the school’s officials.

Unfortunately, that day was not an anomaly. It was the culmination of years of racial abuse and neglect toward Asian immigrant students at the school.

In response, I helped launch an eight-school-day boycott against the school and the School District of Philadelphia. The boycott brought local, national, and even international attention to anti-Asian, anti-immigrant bias. I worked with other students at the school and with community members from different community organizations like Boat People S.O.S., Asian Americans United, and Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia.

We learned to find our voice despite the fear we felt during the struggle. We testified at boards and at commissions. We filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Both agreed that the School District of Philadelphia had violated the 14th Amendment on equal protection and demanded that the District adopt policies that would ensure the safety of every student in school.

These days, South Philadelphia High School has become a much different place. In many ways, it is safer. We fought to get a new principal. That new principal has helped to reduce much of the outright physical and verbal harassment that I used to endure on a regular basis. We built a multiracial student collaborative to work on school safety, and there are new policies in place to address harassment, where before there was none.

Over the last three years, I have grown from a victim of school violence to an empowered student activist. I’m educating myself politically through conversations with others and through engaging with my own community. I have had the privilege of traveling across the country to share my story. In 2011, I visited the White House to attend an anti-bullying summit with the president, the first lady, and the secretary of education. I have learned that there are many painful stories similar to my own and that there are compassionate solutions to problems of school violence and racial hatred.

I am learning to write and talk about my experiences. Recently, I did an interview with StoryCorps, a national oral history project. I also supported an exhibit on the South Philadelphia High struggle, which is now at the Philadelphia Folklore Project. The exhibit details how immigrant, student, and community voices had an impact on civil rights issues in education. It was important to document our struggle at South Philadelphia High for all of Philadelphia, not just our school.

Today, I am at the University of Pennsylvania, the first in my family to attend a private institution. Having been here for two years, I have taken a lot of things for granted. I used to go to school every day feeling unsafe and stressed out, wondering when I would be mocked, teased, or beaten up because of who I was. Now, even at 2 a.m., I walk to my dorm feeling perfectly safe, knowing that Penn police are on campus to protect me. It amazes me sometimes to look back and reflect on my newly found privilege.

I have not forgotten that many people I know left South Philadelphia High School — students of all races. I especially feel pain for the students who left because of harassment and bias they had experienced at school. That was something the school should have stopped. Of the six Chinese immigrant students who went to the hospital on Dec. 3, 2009, five dropped out of school.

As I look back on three years, I have learned to be more conscious of my privilege and deliberate in my actions. So I have learned to invest my time and energy on specific issues that I am passionate about. I am pursuing a sociology major and hope to return to my South Philadelphia neighborhood as a community organizer and educator. Most important, I have found a network of like minds from around the country that inspire me. There is still a lot to learn, but I’m developing my own sense of social justice and political consciousness.

Often times, oppression and injustice persist because people believe they are powerless to improve the situations they are trapped in. At South Philadelphia High School, our slogan was, “We have the power to make change.” It was our belief in collective power that prompted us to challenge the status quo and create change in our school. It’s still my belief in the people’s power that motivates me to pursue my passion in working with my community. As long as we believe in our collective ability to make change and improve our conditions, what happened at South Philadelphia High will not happen again, there or elsewhere.

Duong Nghe Ly is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is majoring in sociology. He is also on the advisory board of BPSOS–Delaware Valley, a nonprofit aiming to empower the Vietnamese community in the Delaware Valley area.