South Philadelphia High School Students Rally To Stop School Violence
A year ago, the sight of Asian and African-American students standing together outside of South Philadelphia High School would have been difficult to envision. After a series of violent incidents on school grounds that led to an eight-day boycott by Asian students protesting a lack of safety, a coalition of Asian and African-American students stood together on Broad Street in front of the school yesterday in a show of solidarity. Duong-Nghe Ly, an 18-year old senior at the high school whose brother was one of the students victimized by the bullying, delivered a populist plea to stop bullying across the country, touching on some recent incidents involving gay students as well.
“Recently, there have been some LGBT students who have been harassed across the country,” said Ly. “Some of them have committed suicide because no one spoke out against bullying. It’s not getting better if we just sit here and wait for things to get better by itself. We have the power to make them better today, and the schools have the responsibility to make them better today.”
One of the catalysts for the improved relations in the school is the new principal, Otis Hackney. When former principal LaGreta Brown resigned in the spring, amidst allegations that she was not a visible leader of the school and poorly handled the incidences violence, Hackney stepped in and students have immediately seen a change. Hackney makes sure he is out front of the school every morning greeting students as they come in. He said that at first some of the Asian students viewed him with a wary eye, but they soon warmed to him when they realized that he was not there to be a figurehead and that he genuinely wanted to improve the relationships between students. This mission began with one simple method: listening.
“When I took the position on, I did a lot of reaching out to the different organizations that were supporting the students from last year and really listening to the issues and doing something about it,” said Hackney.
Without going into detail, Hackney intimated that one of those issues was strongly encouraging the staff to establish a greater connection with some of the immigrant students, something he said students had complained about in the past.
“When I was hearing repeatedly how [the Asian students] felt that the staff treated them or how the staff interacted with them, I thought it was totally inappropriate. What I told [the staff] was this behavior was not going to be tolerated here and if this is not a place where you want to work or you can’t fit in with that, then you need to be somewhere else.”
For the student’s part, the improvement has been drastic. Norman Scott, a 17-year old senior at the high school and member of the Philadelphia Student Union, said that the hostility that enveloped the school last year has dissipated.
“For [students] coming from other countries it’s more of a home-type of feeling because we do lean on each other more,” said Scott. “It’s not hostile, it’s a very mellow relationship.
Ly said that over the past year he and some of the other students who participated in the boycott have traveled all across the country to cities like Houston, Washington, D.C. and New York to share their experiences and raise national awareness on school violence. At the beginning of the year, they founded the Asian Students Association of Philadelphia to give them a sense of legitimacy and help them link with other local student groups such as the Philadelphia Student Union to work to better the learning environment for immigrant students. He added that while they hold trainings every week at the high school to help students better understand other cultures and get to the root cause of school violence, there is still much work to be done, as some African-American students have still been hesitant to reach out.
“There has definitely been a postive response from [the African-American students], many of them are very engaged,” he said. “But many of them still don’t really care about it, but changes take time so we just have to work on it really hard.”