Seeking refuge from school violence
“We didn’t think that day would be safe,” explains Chen. The students were marked absent. No new safety measures were added. One month later, Asian students were jumped in the ESOL classroom.
“If Chinese students don’t go to school, it’s a big problem—they don’t learn,” says Xu Lin, a Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation staffer who mentors Asian teens. “But it’s a bigger problem if they go to school and get beat up.”
Lin, 24, understands the situation. He and three immigrant friends were jumped by 15 kids outside Furness High School in 2001. Two of his friends were hospitalized as a result. It was Lin’s first day of school in America.
Similar stories vibrate throughout the city.
Chandaravuth Non, a 17-year old junior at Fels High School in Lawncrest, was waiting to catch the bus home last winter when he was surrounded by a pair of student thugs in front of the school. “I pulled my hoodie up,” says Non, a native-Cambodian who arrived here in 2007. “I want to avoid trouble.”
But one thug slugged him in the jaw.
“Mother fucker!” Non snapped in his thick accent. “What the fuck?”
The attacker and his friend laughed and then sprinted away. Non never got a good look at them.
“If I go to police, they (the attackers) know,” Non says. “They’ll beat my face.”
A few weeks later, Jeremayah Daniel, then a 14-year old freshman at Fels, was jumped by three students who bashed him on the back of his head. They continued punching him in the face, breaking his nose and causing a concussion.
“I don’t even know them or why they did it,” says Daniel, whose Christian family fled religious intolerance in Pakistan.
He was in the stairwell, exiting Fels at the end of the school day. Other students who walked by never offered to help. With blood pouring down his face and splattered all over his clothes, Daniel left the building, stopped only by a safety officer who asked if he wanted to see the nurse. No one called 911. No reports were taken by the school that day. No one from the school called afterward to learn about his condition. And no arrests were immediately made.
“He was so scared,” says Daniel’s mother, Khalida. “He didn’t want to go back.”
Daniel missed two weeks of school. Then he transferred to Washington High.
His nose is still disfigured, and the bills for the struggling family without medical insurance have mounted.
“Enough is enough,” Eileen Coutts, Fels’ former assistant principal, remembers thinking when she learned about Daniel’s incident.
Coutts had been on medical leave while the violence escalated last school year. Upon her return, she scoured incident reports looking for connections.
“The pattern was that kids were being randomly targeted,” she says. “A person who would be perceived as unable to defend his or herself, such as a person whose first language is a foreign language or a person who is mentally challenged, they were randomly being jumped for no reason. It wasn’t to rob them or get revenge or a continuation of a neighborhood feud. It was just completely random.”
There were 86 assaults at Fels during the 2007-08 school year. Last year was even more violent, with 138 reported assaults, a 60 percent increase. While Asian students represent about 18 percent of the student population at Fels, which has been listed among the state’s “persistently dangerous schools” for the last seven consecutive years, administrators found they were being beat up and bullied at an alarming rate. Coutts says that many of the recent incidents involved two to five perpetrators, often attacking lone, immigrant students.
Seeking to squash the violence, an elite squad of seven rapid-response school police officers was assigned to Fels. Teachers began assisting with hall sweeps. Hoodies and cell phones were banned from inside the school. Then the administrators at Fels held an open forum. They invited parents, students and several Asian, African-American and Hispanic organizations to hear the stories directly from the victims’ mouths.
Asian students from South Philly High marched to school district headquarters Wednesday to protest recent violence at their school. PW's Joel Mathis was there to capture the scene.
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