Writer: Helen I. Hwang
On a cold December day in 2009, just weeks before Christmas, 15-year-old Trang Dang was walking home from school with her sister and eight friends, all recent Vietnamese immigrants. Also part of their group: the principal of their school.
Dang, who is 5’9” with a medium build and a dimpled, contagious smile, asked the principal to accompany them because she and the others were terrified by the intense bullying and violence against Asian students that had taken place earlier that day at their school, South Philadelphia High School. Midway through the walk, the principal, LaGreta Brown, disappeared, Dang said. “She walked to the corner with us and then we didn’t see her anymore,” Dang said. They debated whether to stay or continue walking. “Our friends said if we stand here, we’ll get in trouble,” Dang said. So they opted to try to make it home that day on their own.
They never did.
About half a block from school, a mob of at least two dozen students started chasing them. Dang was the first to be caught. She was punched in the face, shattering her glasses. “It was a quick hit and then they ran,” she said. “After I got hit, then my mind just went blank. I was crying. It wasn’t that painful, I think, but I don’t really remember. I think because I’ve tried to forget about that day.” The entire group was cornered, and all were hit. Dang still doesn't know for sure why the principal seemingly left the group, and the school district denies this allegation.
Earlier that day, Duong Nghe Ly, a junior at the school, was waiting in the cafeteria line to get lunch. A large group of approximately 10 African American students appeared and attacked about three or four of his Chinese immigrant friends at the back of the line, punching and hitting them. “Around 40 other students cheered,” Ly said. An African American teacher intervened and physically used her body to protect the Chinese students, Ly added.
The entire day, roving gangs of high schoolers searched for and attacked Asian teenagers in a nightmarish ordeal. Most of the attacks took place on the premises of this poor school in south Philadelphia while teachers, security guards and other staff were present.
In total, at least 26 Asian immigrant students were physically assaulted in a series of violent conflicts. Thirteen Asian students ended up in the emergency room for injuries ranging from a broken nose to black eyes. One had to have surgery because he could no longer breathe through his nose. Community leaders believe more kids were attacked but didn’t report it for fear of retaliation.
“There isn't really an event like December 3, where you had a number of students severely harassed and beaten in one day,” said Cecilia Chen of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Helen Gym, a board member of Asian Americans United, a Philadelphia-based community advocacy organization, described the melee as “off the charts in violence.”
Bullying includes verbal taunting, physical assaults, exclusion from a peer group, spreading rumors and cyber bullying — and Asian Americans are the most frequently bullied ethnic group, according to a 2004 study conducted with nearly 1,400 students. Psychologists believe Asians are particularly vulnerable to bullying because of stereotypes of being submissive. Sometimes the bullying of Asian youths also lends itself to an ugly cycle, where they become bullies of others.
For the teens at South Philadelphia High School, it took direct action and community support to turn the school around.
Asian Americans Prone to Bullying
All the usual stereotypes contribute to Asian Americans being prone to bullying: Asian Americans are perceived as “foreign” no matter how many generations their families have been living in America; physical differences make them stand out (in the aftermath of 9/11, Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs were victims of bullying based solely on their physical appearance); and there is the stereotype of being obsequious and meek. “Socially submissive behavior increases the risk of peer victimization,” said Dr. Jaana Juvonen, a psychology professor and bullying researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.
There aren’t many places for Asian youth to turn when bullying occurs. William Ming Liu, a psychologist and professor at the University of Iowa and an officer of the Asian American Psychological Association, explained that Asian bullying victims often feel they can’t turn to their parents because their parents don’t understand what bullying is.
“Some lack English skills or the understanding of how to intervene in the school,” Liu said. In addition, immigrant parents are often under economic pressure, working in environments that don’t offer flexible schedules and are less able to take time off to talk to their children and help them cope with bullying experiences. Asian American parents, especially new immigrants, may even encourage their teenagers to keep a low profile and endure the brutal attacks on the children’s self-esteem and physical well-being.
Quietly enduring such pain can take a toll, especially in communities where seeking help for mental health is not in the cultural norm and culturally appropriate services may not be available. Bullying is linked directly to depression and anxiety. In one study, 31.5 percent of victims reported higher levels of depression, according to Jin Y. Shin, a psychology professor at Hofstra University who studied bullying among Korean American youths in New York and New Jersey. They also experienced loneliness, poor social and emotional adjustment and interpersonal difficulties. Shin also found that Asian American youth experienced higher levels of emotional distress compared to other ethnic groups.
In some cases, bullying can lead to thoughts of suicide, according to Eliza Noh, an Asian American studies professor at California State University, Fullerton, who has studied suicide among Asian Americans. “Some Asian American women I interviewed reported being victims of racist bullying when they were young, contributing to their low self-worth, suicide attempt or depression later in life,” Noh said. Liu pointed out bullying victims are essentially trauma victims who experience post-traumatic stress disorder similar to war veterans. He warned that young people may experience psychosomatic symptoms like feeling ill, as well as hypervigilance, heightened startled responses, depression and social withdrawal.
Some long-term psychological effects are “acting out” behaviors like getting in trouble in school, talking back to their teachers, anxiety or even bullying others as a means of self-defense. In one of Shin’s studies on Korean American adolescents, she found that some victims “go after those who bully them” using tae kwon do or karate skills.
A Day of Violence
That horrible day at South Philly High was no isolated incident, according to Xu Lin, a community advocate who worked at Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation at the time. Asian students in Philadelphia have been subjected to bullying for more than a decade. Lin witnessed a similar mass assault in the cafeteria of another Philadelphia public high school as a teenager. “I saw my friend getting punched and I went to defend him,” said Lin, now 27. “Suddenly, 10 people surrounded me and started beating me.” His friend suffered a concussion.
Lin was familiar with the situation when his friend Wei Chen, an English Language Learner (ELL) student, called him from the school soon after the attacks began that day. Lin arrived at the school to find some of the victims standing at the school gates freezing in T-shirts. The security guards and school officials were trying to get the victims to leave school immediately, and they hadn’t been allowed to go back to their lockers and get their coats. (The school district did not respond to repeated requests from Hyphen about this and other allegations by the students. The allegations are consistent with the official statements in the Justice Department’s investigation and the 11 public hearings held by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations after the incident, though the school district has denied these allegations in the settlement with the Justice Department.)
The source of that day’s mayhem was a false rumor, found to be untrue during the investigation following the incident: that an African American student in a wheelchair had been bullied by a group of Asian American students the day before.
The violence started before 9 a.m., when a dozen students rushed inside a classroom, beat an Asian student and threw a desk on top of him. Another Asian girl was dragged down the stairwell by her hair by up to five students. Teachers reported groups of students roaming the halls looking for Asian students.
For even one of the most violent schools in the School District of Philadelphia, there was an unusually high level of tension that morning. Wei Chen, who started the Chinese Students Association in 2008, recalled that everyone seemed to be looking at the Asians. “I told my friends to watch out. I feel like there will be a fight."
A group of Asian ELL students asked a security guard to escort them to the cafeteria, which he did. The students took a look inside the cafeteria and deemed it too chaotic. As they turned to leave, a mob pummeled them with fists and kicks. The security guard had disappeared, according to students’ accounts documented in the subsequent investigation. Crowds of onlookers from all races cheered on the attackers.
Wei Chen heard about the assault while in class, and some African American classmates offered to accompany him to his next class as protection. Later, he saw some fellow Asian students in the nurse’s office. What he saw made him almost cry: One student’s shirt was completely covered in blood. The nurse told the students to leave her office at the end of the school day because it wasn’t “her duty” and she wanted to go home, according to Chen, who provided the same testimony in official investigations.
All of the bullying victims were Asian immigrant students, though the ethnicities of the attackers were predominantly African American, whites, Latinos and allegedly even an Asian American student participated.
Some speculate that the ethnic tensions at the school can be attributed to lack of adult intervention, adults modeling bad behavior such as racially charged name calling, stereotypes and an influx of Asian students in a relatively short time period without the school or district adequately addressing the changes.
Asian students at South Philadelphia High School were regularly pelted with food in the cafeteria, punched in the hallways and endured verbal abuse and other harassment. Teachers and cafeteria staff called the students “Yo Dragonball” or “Yo Chinese” and even mocked their accents, according to Gym of Asian Americans United.
Ly, the junior at South Philly who saw his friends attacked in the cafeteria that day, said that ethnic tensions had long been circulating. The school “remained indifferent for years to allow the tensions to escalate to that day,” Ly said, accusing it of refusing to address the root causes of the harassment and violence that the students regularly endured.
South Philadelphia High School has a student population that is layered and complex. Nearly all the 900 students live below the poverty line. Only four out of 10 students will graduate within four years. About 65 percent of the student body is composed of African Americans and new African immigrants. The Asian American population accounts for 22 percent and a significant portion are just learning English because the school offers an intensive program for new immigrants. Six percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are white; 19 languages are spoken in the school. While diversity is usually heralded as something positive, it seems this school wasn’t able to benefit from it. In the last five years, there were 534 documented assaults at the school, more than any other in the district.
Ly noted that stereotypes, such as those that say African Americans are supposed to be in violent gangs and Asian students are supposed to be smart, create “lots of tension” by allowing misunderstandings and fears to fester. Asians are seen as the model minority, but the mostly working-class Asian students at Philly face challenges.
“There’s a struggle to get Asian students to go to college just like any other students,” said Otis Hackney, the school’s new principal and its fifth in six years. “My Asian students are working-class immigrant students. Once they’re done, they work in restaurants and factories. Getting them to understand that college is an option is a struggle.”
Given the school is over 100 years old and located in a section of the city where new immigrant families have always moved into, whether it be Jewish, Irish or Asian, “there have always been ethnic or racial tensions,” Hackney said. But it hasn’t always had “the strife to keep the school from being successful.”
Liu pointed out that school systems in many urban districts like South Philadelphia experience a sudden influx of Asians in a few short years and lack a structure to respond to the diversity through things like language training and anti-harassment policies. School administration may have been trained to deal with African Americans and Latinos, but the intersection of cultural influences may cause some growing pains. Gym accused the school of not adequately addressing the school’s shifting demographics: “They are going along like nothing has changed at the school and express surprise when problems erupt or are caught lead-footed on how to address problems when they do happen.”
Bullying and other violence in schools is often a response by youth to controlling and alienating school environments, experts say. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University whose research covers African American identity as well as culturally responsive teaching, said that schools are among the most powerless places for adolescents. “[Schooling] is about controlling the bodies,” Sealey-Ruiz said. “ ‘Don’t say that. Don’t curse. Don’t speak to this person that way.’” Bullying becomes a means of “trying to get power and ultimately gain respect—particularly for students of color in a place that least respects who they are.”
And bullying is not particular to urban school settings. A recent report released by the National Center for Educational Statistics surveying over 25 million school-aged youth about their experiences with bullying (broadly defined, from looks and rumors to actual physical abuse) showed that bullying occurs consistently across these settings: 27.8 percent of suburban adolescents and 27 percent of urban youth report being bullied.
Sealey-Ruiz pointed to such examples as Columbine, an upper-middle class school in which bullying resulted in tragic school shootings, as evidence that bullying is prevalent among white, middle-upper class youth. Suburban schools, she noted, are usually where incidents of bullying that escalate to the point when people are killed take place, contrary to popular thought. “We’re so used to typecasting urban schools,” Sealey-Ruiz said. “Everything ill goes on in urban schools. It is the breeding ground for bullying and kids throwing chairs at teachers. All this horrible behavior that may be taking place, probably worse things take place in suburban schools.”
Some factors that Hackney and others believe increased the tension include segregating the new immigrant students from the rest of the population. Non-ELL students weren’t allowed on the “Asian floor,” even to the use the bathroom. Students were also allowed to sit where they chose, leading to de facto segregation in the classroom. Hackney acknowledged that stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings are also at play. A simple gesture, like saying “excuse me” when bumping another kid in the hallway, can diffuse potentially volatile situations. He saw many Asian students keep their heads down and avoid making eye contact — actions that could be misconstrued as rudeness. Hackney has since tried to address these misunderstandings with the students.
Interracial tensions at schools are also a result of the larger impact of racism on students’ self-perceptions and sense of selfworth. Sealey-Ruiz explained that some tensions between students of color arise out a desire to not be seen as different. “You might have these groups who, for all intents and purposes, are seen as the ‘Other’ by the dominant standpoint,” said Sealey-Ruiz. “Yet they want to distinguish themselves so that they can be as close to the norm or dominant as possible.”
Community groups noticed these tensions early and met with school administrators to address the harassment that Asian students regularly endured in many Philadelphia public schools prior to the December 2009 incident. Nothing changed as a result of those meetings, community organizers said.
Tensions within schools can also be exacerbated by lack of funding and neglect. Lack of resources, high teacher turnover, and lack of adequate staffing are all factors that may create unwelcoming climates that cultivate violence and conflict. A former teacher at South Philadelphia High School (who wished to remain anonymous) says the school suffered from a lack of attention by the district: “Everything seemed stacked against this school, as if the district didn't want it to improve because it was a community school, a third-tier school. All of the policies and funding decisions always seem to hit those schools the worst.”
Cecilia Chen of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund emphasized the lack of accountability and response from school and district officials to the longstanding anti-Asian and anti-immigrant harassment. “School districts have an obligation to address bias-based harassment,” she said. “They cannot turn a blind eye. What this case makes clear is that when school districts are notified about harassment, they must take steps to stop, address and prevent harassment."
As a result of the melee, approximately 80 students decided to boycott the school until officials could ensure their safety. Lin worked with the students to come up with statements about what bullying incidents they had endured, and the group held press conferences to show the injuries they sustained, garnering international media attention. Even the FBI came. School officials met with the students and tried to persuade them to return, but no one felt there was a solid plan to protect the kids. Lin said a student at the meeting pointed out, “We were attacked in front of you. How can you tell us we will be safe?”
The boycott lasted eight days, receiving massive support from the Philadelphia community. The students eventually co-sponsored the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools with the Philadelphia Student Union, a diverse organization of students working to improve the Philadelphia school system. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a civil rights complaint with the Justice Department, accusing the school administration of being “deliberately indifferent” to the hostile school environment for Asian students.
In early 2011, the Justice Department entered into a settlement with the School District of Philadelphia. The school hired a diversity consultant and implemented a school-wide anti-harassment policy in seven languages along with staff training. It also provides translation services for students and parents and posts data about harassment incidents on its website.
An Ounce of Prevention
Much research has been done on how to prevent bullying. Adrienne Nishina, a professor of human and community development at the University of California, Davis, who has studied bullying, said that a “whole school approach” has been proven the most successful. The premise is that teachers, school administration officials, parents and other students are taught to intervene when they see bullying and to foster an atmosphere that discourages it. Having a more tolerant school environment in general can also help. One study Shin conducted in an upstate New York high school found that Asian Americans experienced low levels of bullying due to school policies fostering multiculturalism and tolerance.
Bystander intervention is important as well. “Bullies are very sensitive to how they’re perceived by their peer group,” Liu said. “They need a peer group, or they can’t be a bully on their own.” He also added, “Most people put their heads down and allow (bullying) to continue. Ignoring it allows the bullying to persist. Ignoring doesn’t give the bully any information to counter that behavior. The peers have to say something in that situation to curb that behavior.”
But for some Asian Americans, bystander intervention, where kids have to speak up to bullies, is “counter to the cultural values of many Asian immigrants. A lot of bullying interventions are geared toward white mainstream kids,” Liu said. Some traditional Asian values, like avoiding conflict and deferring to authority, can be detrimental to Asian Americans in bullying situations. Liu encourages Asian Americans to persist in drawing attention to the issue, regardless of whether teachers or authority figures refuse to listen and to speak up for bullying victims. A simple “that’s not cool” remark can go a long way.
Creating cultures of caring and mutual understanding are key to preventing violence on school campuses. “Schools have a lot of power that they’re not exercising in the most positive way to bring groups together,” said Sealey-Ruiz of Teachers College, Columbia University. She said that in her experience as a researcher and teacher she has seen schools resolve incidences of violence by bringing in speakers, holding community-wide events such as film screenings, and letting students come together to respond openly. Sealey-Ruiz also said that involving school safety officers, who may not be Asian American, in a conversation around cultural difference is one way to encourage their active participation in bullying intervention.
Preventing bullying also starts with conversation and dialogue. Nancy Kuei, an English teacher at Newark Memorial High School, located in the socioeconomically diverse San Francisco Bay Area, said the simple act of writing and sharing stories can preclude violence and bullying among students. “They can see that they actually share a common ground with people who may not look like them on the outside,” said Kuei. “That will prevent violence a lot more effectively than when it’s already happening.”
Changes at South Philly
Since new principal Hackney has come on board and the Justice Department has intervened, the atmosphere at South Philadelphia High has improved, students said. “Safety is my No. 1 priority,” said Hackney. One of his assistant principals is the point person to handle complaints from the students, though they’re encouraged to tell any adult if there is a problem.
He has also implemented other changes to ease the tensions. Classrooms no longer have African American students sitting on one side of the classroom and Asian students on the other; they have to integrate. Hackney regularly meets with Asian students to check in on the climate. The school now posts signs in the hallways in several languages on how to get help from the security guards and guidance counselors. There are also 126 new security cameras installed around the school, at a cost of almost $700,000.
Ly, now a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, has seen a significant decrease in racial conflict. “I believe there’s a lot of improvement this year compared to last year and the year before.”
The students involved have been lauded for speaking out and for their work on improving the racial climate. In 2011, Ly won the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, which honors young people working to increase understanding and respect among races. Lin, Wei Chen, Ly and fellow student Bach Tong won the national Freedom from Fear Award, which honors those fighting for immigrant and refugee rights.
Wei Chen, Ly and other kids who started the boycott now tour other schools to talk about bullying as part of the Asian Students Association of Philadelphia. Gym described the students as “an incredibly focused and organized immigrant student body who went from being victims of violence to powerful agents of change in their school and the district.”
Though the spotlight began with Asian students as the bullying victims, Cecilia Chen of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund sees this settlement as a move that will benefit “not only Asian students but to ensure that all students are able to go to school in a safe environment.” She hopes that other school districts realize that they cannot ignore bullying or hostile environments, or they will face lawsuits and unwelcome media attention.
In September, New Jersey enacted the strictest anti-bullying law to date. The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights was spurred by the 2010 suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi — who was involved in a cyberbullying case where the two alleged perpetrators were Asian American. Under the law, public schools in New Jersey must have in place comprehensive an antibullying specialist, anti-bullying policies, staff trainings and better reporting of incidences. Some have said this type of policing of youngsters has gone too far, while others laud it as progress to protect students, especially since online bullying has increased.
As for the School District of Philadelphia, they don’t want to see a repeat of 2009. District spokesperson Shana Kemp said: “We welcome the opportunity to address the needs of the school and the community. We want to make sure that all the students are benefiting from multiculturalism.”
Ly agreed that, now, South Philadelphia High School is “truly a safe space to come and learn.”
Read accounts from Asian American bullying victims here.
Helen I. Hwang is a freelance journalist and author based in Scotland who previously lived in Philadelphia for 13 years. Her works have appeared in People magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, A Magazine: Inside Asian America, The Huffington Post and other publications. Additional reporting by Cathlin Goulding. This story was funded in part by the Spot.us community.