“When I started school, I was very excited to go to school. I didn’t speak much English but I got some help in my classroom. A few months later, I got beat up in the lunchroom from behind. The authorities showed up and the police filed a report and sent me home. The next day when I was home, I learned that my brother was also beat up at school.”
An Olney High School student named Sovannak, told his story of being a victim. This is just one of the many incidents of student violence in public schools mentioned at the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations’ meeting on Tuesday night. The packed event was held at the Olney Recreation Center in North Philadelphia. Parents, students, teachers and residents of all ages and races told their stories and shared their advice for how the Philadelphia School District should deal with these acts of violence.
The first incident that triggered these meetings by the Commission occurred on Dec. 3 when 30 Asian students at South Philadelphia High School were attacked by a large number of African-American and other Asian students. Seven of the students attacked were hospitalized. It is believed that this event stemmed from an incident that had taken place the previous day, when a disabled African American student was beat up by two Asian students.
When the commission heard about the many incidents taking place in Philadelphia’s public schools, it decided to hold 11 meetings throughout the year. Tuesday’s meeting was the sixth, marking the halfway point. At the end of the year, the commission will have a statement for the Philadelphia School District on how it should take action against violence in schools.
Kay Kyungsun Yu is the chairperson of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. She explained that she has been noticing reoccurring themes during these meetings. “There’s a level of fear that the students are dealing with and other victims of attacks may be dealing with,” she said, “so we want to get the incentives correct so that reporting should be part of identifying the problem and moving forward rather than having disincentives to reporting,” she continued. “Professional development, I think, is another issue that is coming out, and providing supportive services as well, so social services in addition.”
While the commission is trying to figure out what the problem is exactly, there were people in attendance who had ideas. “I’ve been fighting for equality of education for quite some time and youth violence is a big issue for me,” said Alicia Dorsey, a parent of a student who had been victimized in public schools. “My oldest son, when we were at Strawberry Mansion High School, a NTA (non-teacher assistant) had paid him $30, along with 30 other boys, to beat up a really big boy. So all 30 of those students got suspended, but my son was the only person that was pressed with charges,” she explained. “There’s a whole lot of different issues, but youth violence is provoked by several different elements and it’s not just our youth coming into schools with a bad attitude.”
While Dorsey’s son was a victim of inequality in one way, a Grover Washington High School student explained that he was treated unfairly on the other end. Mengchhay Kong spoke into the microphone quietly about how he was beat up while walking home from school twice in the past two years, the second incident occurred in more recent months.
“I think they should have more police officers to go around and watch the students to be safe,” he suggested.
Teachers and principals have witnessed these incidents and believe in their own solutions. Carmen Austin, a parent and teacher in the school district would like problem solving done inside the schools. “I think it’s something that the school district should at least consider. Someone should come to the class at least once a week and speak to the children and help them solve their problems,” she said.
Nelson Reyes, the principal at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, said his school had programs inside the school to prevent violence from occurring. “A lot of the issues that we have come from the streets and it’s brought into the school building,” he explained. “We take a very proactive stand when it comes to the school. We have a lot of interventions that are in school.”
Jeff Hackett from the City of Philadelphia Recreational Center believes the problem comes from the home and shouldn’t need to be addressed in school. “The problem is the adults,” he said. “Children just need direction. We need to grow up. This is part of the real problem that is going on in the city of Philadelphia with our children.” He also explained how he takes it upon himself to be a father figure to those children he is around every day and may not have the stability he can provide. “We’ve got an incidence up at the playground where diversity changed in the area and the names started, and I sat everybody down in the middle of the playground. ‘You wanna play? You’re going to start learning who everybody is…this is a human being.’ Sounds silly, but we have a harmonious place. They play together now.”
Reaching the half-way mark through these meetings has helped the commission to understand some of the problems that are occurring. “I think that just having an opportunity for the community to come and be a process of the sharing of this information that it really brings people closer together and that’s really what the Philadelphia Committee on Human Relations has in mind,” Yu said.
While the commission considers the first half of its tour of Philadelphia neighborhoods a success, there are still many questions that haven’t been answered, the main one asking where the problem really lies. Is the problem in the schools or does it come from the home?
The seventh hearing is scheduled to take place at the Towey Recreation Center from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on June 8. For more information about the hearings, visit https://www.phila.gov/humanrelations/.