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racial unrest in high school
Lafayette High School in Brooklyn is being “phased out” after many years of service. (Photo courtesy NY Daily News)

BROOKLYN, N.Y – History teacher Patrick Compton is leafing through pages of Bivonas and Bernsteins in the 1967 yearbook of Lafayette High School, alma mater to baseball great Sandy Koufax and broadcaster Larry King in this working class enclave.

Only eleven of the faces are black or Asian. Picking up Lafayette’s 2007 yearbook, Compton finds that Jewish and Italian names are nearly gone, replaced by faces of African Americans and immigrants from South Asia, the former Soviet Union and Latin America.

The ethnic sea change brought with it a spate of violence against Asian students by non-Asian classmates remarkably similar to the unrest and painful divisions now plaguing South Philadelphia High.

“As neighborhoods change, schools have to change, and unless they address the needs of a new population systemically, the problems are just going to be reflected back into the schools and repeat themselves,” says Compton, a Burlington, N.J. resident who has spent 24 years teaching in the cavernous brick building in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a densely populated area of semi-detached two-family homes some 45 minutes from midtown Manhattan.

racial unrest in high school
Patrick Compton in his home office in Burlingtion, NJ. (Ron Tarver / Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Photographer)

Compton, who has been following events at South Philadelphia High, worries that lessons from Lafayette will be lost. “You can’t just address this school by school.”

A similar story

Like Bensonhurst, the neighborhood surrounding South Philadelphia High has experienced radical population changes in recent years, absorbing a steady influx of immigrants from China and Vietnam.

As investigations into violence against Asian immigrants at South Philadelphia High continue, the school may find some disturbing parallels with Lafayette, which earned the nickname “Horror High” after about two dozen assaults in 2002, including the beating of valedictorian Siukwo Cheng.

The Justice Department investigated, leading a federal court in Brooklyn two years later to find  “severe and pervasive” harassment of Asian students at Lafayette.

School officials looked the other way while students threw food, cans and even metal locks at Asian students, the court found, and ordered Lafayette to address each case of violence and discrimination and investigate all reports of harassment. The school was also ordered to improve services for English language learners and provide translation into Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian, Creole and Urdu.

The court order brought small improvements for some new immigrant students over the next two years, but violent incidents continued. High turnover in leadership and a plummeting graduation rate finally led the New York City Department of Education to phase Lafayette out, beginning in 2006. In June, the neighborhood landmark that teemed with up to 4,500 students in the days when the Brooklyn Dodgers called Ebbets Field home and kids played stickball in the streets will graduate its last class.

Lafayette’s painful demise poses questions for South Philadelphia High about what might eventually heal divisions there.

No easy solution

There is no easy roadmap for avoiding or managing the racial violence that often follows ethnic and demographic changes, says Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University.

Large urban school districts must train leaders to navigate cultural and demographic changes before they become explosive. “You can’t just address these issues with security guards or cops in schools,” says Noguera, who spoke at a symposium at the Comcast Tower in January about how to build a positive school climate. “They need to create a sense of inclusion, so all kids feel like part of the community.”

That was not the case at South Philadelphia High, where 13 Asian students were sent to the hospital after violence on Dec. 3 that triggered a seven-day student boycott.  In interviews, students said they did not feel safe, and a report released last month by a retired federal judge found “race and ethnicity” were contributing factors in the attacks. The school district responded by adding security cameras and police officers, as well as increasing staff training and setting up an anonymous tip-line to report violence.

Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who commissioned the inquiry, called it thorough and comprehensive. But the report disappointed community advocates, who said it was incomplete and failed to address the history of racially motivated violence against Asian immigrant students.

Cecilia Chen, a staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), finds “striking similarities” between the violence at Lafayette, where the group closely monitored the 2004 court order, and South Philadelphia High. Chen hopes an independent investigation of events at South Philadelphia High currently underway by the U.S. Department of Justice will also result in court action like it did at Lafayette.

In January, AALDEF filed a civil rights complaint alleging “deliberate indifference” to harassment complaints against Asian students. Chen says the school district misrepresented both what happened and who was responsible for the December violence.

“The school district of Philadelphia should take a hard look at what it means to provide a safe environment, because they haven’t,” Chen says, adding that she sees court intervention as “part of a broader strategy to achieve change at South Philadelphia High.”

Both Lafayette and South Philadelphia High “ignored signs that violence against Asian students was increasing, and despite repeated calls and pressure from community groups, refused to acknowledge that there was a problem,” Chen testified in December before the Philadelphia School District Reform Commission.

Taking complaints seriously

If South Philadelphia High School wants to improve relationships among ethnic groups, they must start by listening to students, which did not initially happen at Lafayette, says Steve Chung, co-president of the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn.

“They have to take their complaints seriously,” says Chung, whose group advocates for the growing Asian community around Lafayette, where the Chinese and Indian populations grew by more than 75 percent from 1990 to 2000.

New immigrant students also need to learn how to defend themselves and recognize harassment, says Vincci Tai, who graduated from Lafayette in 2009 and is now a college freshman at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. Tai, originally from Malaysia, swapped strategies with South Philadelphia High students last spring as an intern for AALDEF. She described to them what it was like at Lafayette and how she and her classmates at Lafayette often felt intimidated.

“I told them it’s important to speak out and raise awareness so this doesn’t happen again,” says Tai, who recalls that at Lafayette many of the Asian immigrants were perceived as weak because they were quiet, studious and didn’t know the language. “They were afraid to fight back and afraid of getting into trouble.”

Lafayette had become increasingly multi-ethnic by the time Tai enrolled, its population 43 percent African American, 23 percent Asian and 24 percent Latino. South Philadelphia High, also once largely Italian and white, is now 70 percent African American and 18 percent Asian.

The growing Asian population created a need for groups like the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn, says Chung, who got involved at Lafayette in 2002 after sobbing Asian students showed up in the association’s office. The students said they’d been beaten by classmates and ignored by school officials.  Asian students at South Philadelphia High had similar complaints for years.

Turning to the community

Just like at Lafayette, the students turned to community groups after being frustrated by a lack of response from school officials, although in Philadelphia students took matters into their own hands in December, organizing an eight-day school boycott.

At both schools, students and community leaders complained that the principal would not listen. “The principal has to deal with the problem, not hide it under the rug,” says Chung, a 53-year-old engineer who emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. as a teenager. A revolving door of school leaders – history teacher Compton counts nine in his 24 years at Lafayette – did not inspire confidence, Chung notes.

At South Philadephia High, LaGreta Brown this fall became the school’s fourth principal in five years. Brown has declined to discuss the December violence specifically or the report’s findings but says she has worked with faculty, staff, students and their families to provide a safe and orderly climate.

School officials in Philadelphia say they are combating the racial turmoil with diversity training for staff and students. Noguera, the NYU professor, believes strong school leadership can make schools safer and more conducive to learning, but only if principals receive the right training before violence breaks out. “You need an environment where there is order and safety, premised on strong relationships between adults and kids – and between kids,” he says.

Ultimately, the students – who received training and guidance from AALDEF, federal officials, and community groups – did the most to improve race relations at Lafayette, says Richard Mangone, a social studies teacher and the school’s union representative.

“We had a strong group of youth, they organized, they asked for change and they were clear in what they wanted from the adults,” Mangone says.

Lafayette students gained confidence after the 2005 appointment of Iris Chiu as the first Asian administrator at Lafayette, Mangone recalls. Chiu spent her early months as an assistant principal listening to students’ concerns and urging different groups to learn more about one another, including their tastes in food, dance and music.

Change remains elusive

But a year after the court intervened, change remained elusive at Lafayette. AALDEF interviewed 25 students who continued to complain of harassment during the 2004-05 school year. A freshman was beaten after school while waiting for a train; another student was choked by a classmate in the locker room. In other cases, students did not report incidents because they had no confidence in the school’s ability to respond or interview witnesses, says Khin Mai Aung, a staff attorney at AALDEF.

The problems at Lafayette went deeper than violence. Asian immigrants complained they were not placed in classes for English language learners and did not have access to guidance counselors. They had trouble enrolling in the courses required for graduation and could not get translation or interpretation services as required by law. Other students at Lafayette reported that school safety agents were impolite to Asian students; two described being treated “like animals,” AALDEF records show.

Connie Cuttle, the director of professional development for the Office of School and Youth Development in New York City schools, says complaints went up in the months after the 2004 court order, in part because of increased security and a newfound awareness and emphasis on reporting incidents.

“It’s not a fast fix when you are talking about modifying and changing belief systems,” says Cuttle. She says the training of students and staff at Lafayette from 2004-2006 ultimately helped the New York City school system craft a new regulation on how to handle bias-related incidents. More than 1,800 supervisors, teachers and counselors have since been trained to help maintain safe and respectful learning environments.

Cuttle says that of all the lessons learned at Lafayette, the most important is the need for schools to focus on social and emotional learning – which, in turn, improves academic performance. But those lessons came too late for Lafayette, as its four-year graduation rate fell below 45 percent before the city decided to close it down in 2006 and replace it with small, themed academies.

Assistant principal Chiu savors some small victories from her time at Lafayette, including the progress of an immigrant student who nearly transferred out but stayed and won a full scholarship to Columbia University. Asian students at the time were afraid of African-American students because they had no understanding of their culture, she recalls. And African-American kids mimicked Asian students, making fun of the way they spoke, until they got to know them better.

A breakthrough came during one of many late nights at the school, amidst preparations for a multicultural celebration in 2006.

“A security guard turned to me and said, ‘I have been working in this building for more than twenty years and this is the first time I have ever seen black and Asian students working together,’ ” Chiu recalls.

On the night of the celebration, a crowd of 300 watched as Chinese New Year’s celebrations and Tai Chi sword demonstrations mingled with African dance, rap and hip-hop.  Lafayette alumnus and recent college graduate Siukwo Cheng, the valedictorian who was beaten unconscious in 2002, sat in the audience.

“He [Cheng] turned to me and said there had never been this type of cultural show when he was there,” recalls Aung, the staff attorney for AALDEF who was watching the celebration. “Despite the fact that the school continued to suffer academically and there were some tensions, if you talked to the immigrant students, you would hear them say that they did start feeling safer because of our efforts.”

Chiu, now an assistant principal at Brooklyn High School of the Arts, has not spoken with school officials in South Philadelphia but would like to. “We certainly hope our experience can give the school /district administrators some insights to help alleviate the racial tension at South Philly High School,’’ she says. “ No one should be harassed because of their race or ethnic background.’’

Aung of AALDEF wants students in South Philadelphia to stop seeing themselves as victims and instead feel at home. “If we can build strength in the students at South Philly, it would look different,” Aung says. “There are already student organizers who are active but they can be trained to document incidents and really hold the district accountable for their actions.”

Beyond Philadelphia and Brooklyn

National experts concur that student involvement is critical.

Garry McGiboney, associate superintendent in charge of safety in Georgia, says regular focus groups with students help keep school leaders in the loop. “If we think we know what is going on, we are kidding ourselves,” McGiboney says.

School officials in Los Angeles also rely on relationships with students to keep tabs on racial tensions, says Judy Chiasson, the coordinator in the Office of Human Relations, Diversity, and Equity for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Ninety percent of what happens at a school, the adults don’t see,” says Chiasson, who finds in visits to hundreds of schools that students really don’t want to fight. “When kids feel they belong, they do well.”

At Lafayette, few ethnic tensions remain because the school is almost empty. Compton and Mangone sometimes teach just two or three students a day. That leaves them time to peruse yearbooks and reflect on painful memories of police and ambulances at Lafayette, along with those of a more harmonious, homogenous Brooklyn neighborhood that no longer exists.

The school’s closing still saddens those who spent three years working to improve race relations after the court ruling. Community activists like Chung complain that the closing of Lafayette leaves a dearth of schools with sufficient language services for new immigrants.

Compton wonders if any lessons from Lafayette might help, not just at South Philadelphia High but everywhere. “How is Philadelphia defending the rights of every student in their system?” he wonders. “That’s what matters.”

A version of this story appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 19, 2010.

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