PHILADELPHIA — Duong Nghe Ly can't wait to begin his senior year at South Philadelphia High School. A day of violence there last year changed his life, and he wants to learn if his school has been transformed as well.
Last Dec. 3, after years of attacks on Asian immigrant students, something finally snapped.
Fueled by rumors, a group of students roamed the halls searching for Asian victims until one was attacked in a classroom. Later, about 70 students stormed the cafeteria, where several Asians were beaten. About 35 students pushed past a police officer onto the so-called "Asian floor," but were turned back. After school, Asians being escorted home were attacked anyway by a mob of youths.
Almost all the attackers were black — but few observers believe the violence was due to racial hatred. Instead, they cite isolation of different groups within the school, certain students' warped "gangster" values, and for some, simmering resentments over perceived benefits for Asian students.
About 30 Asians were injured that day; seven went to hospitals. Past attacks had been reported to administrators and police, but students say nothing seemed to change.
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Ly (pronounced LEE) was in the lunchroom for what he calls "the riot." Days later, he was followed home from school and punched in the face on his front stoop.
He had arrived from Vietnam two years earlier, speaking nearly no English, the son of poor, uneducated parents. He thought America would be like the "Hannah Montana" TV episodes he had watched in Vietnam. What he found was closer to "The Wire." So he kept his head down, sought silent refuge among his countrymen and tried to make his way through the broken system.
Dec. 3 was a turning point. He realized the system must change — and that he and his fellow immigrants were the ones to make that happen.
Their method? Guided by local activists, and despite reservations from some parents, about 50 Asian students boycotted school for a week.
"Before, I was timid. I didn't really want to get myself into trouble," says Ly, 18. Then he realized, "If everybody's silent, nobody speaks up, the problem keeps going on without being resolved. I feel like I or my friends have to speak up and organize to tell people this is not right.
"We had to fight for it."
Duong Ly's parents, ethnic Chinese who grew up in Vietnam, worked 27 years to grasp the bottom rung of the ladder to American success.
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His mother, Phung Mac, attended school through the second grade, when her family ran out of money to pay for more. His father, Tu Ly, made it through the sixth grade. In 1981, they submitted their first paperwork to immigrate to the United States.
"You had to have a certain background to go to school, be in the Communist Party," Tu Ly says in Cantonese as his son translates. "Your grandparents had to be a party member for you to get into good schools. Otherwise it cost a lot of money to get an education."
Ly's parents lived in Ho Chi Minh City, eking out a living selling "pho" noodle soup, rising at 5 a.m. and working in their shop until 9 or 10 at night. All extra money went toward school for Duong (pronounced YUHNG) and his older brother, and fees for immigration paperwork. At times they could not pay their rent and were forced to move, but they always made sure their boys stayed in school.
Ly's mother developed painful hip problems. Her younger brother, who had already moved to America, sent money to pay for an operation. It was unsuccessful — the doctor said it was "an experiment. If you want a better ... operation, you need to pay more money," she says in Cantonese.
In 2008, after spending about $20,000 on immigration fees, the family was approved and came to Philadelphia. "We finally achieved our wish: freedom," Tu Ly says. "We finally had a chance for a better education."
South Philadelphia High looms over an entire city block in a poor section of South Philadelphia long populated by descendants of voyagers from Italy, other European nations and the black American South. Asians and Latinos are now coming in greater numbers. Today, the school is about 70 percent black and 18 percent Asian.
During Duong Ly's first year, there were 45 reports of "dangerous incidents" such as weapons possession or assaults at the school of about 1,000 students, enough to earn a "persistently dangerous" label from the state. There also were 326 reports of lesser crimes such as fighting, threats or robberies. The graduation rate was 48 percent. Only 16 percent of students were proficient or better in reading and 8 percent in math, according to state test results.
Within weeks of starting school, Ly was robbed in the bathroom. His older brother was punched in the face. "Our friends told us, 'Just suffer it,'" Ly says.
They didn't report either incident.
Duong Ly speaks dispassionately, expressing no racial animosity, when asked to explain how fellow students could commit such vicious attacks.
"Because they live in a violent environment," he suggests. "Maybe their parents have problems and troubles, so they want to express their anger by violence."
His father also declines to condemn the attackers. "In Vietnam," he says, "the original Vietnamese people don't like us because we are a different ethnicity. People from the countryside who move to the city get discrimination from city people. It's the same here. They don't have an understanding about who we are. Discrimination happens in every society."
About a dozen black students were suspended or expelled after Dec. 3. Their names have been kept secret, and they have not commented publicly.
Some other black students show little sympathy for them. "They're just hating on other races. They don't have anything better to do with their lives," says Tyreke Williams, who graduated last June.
Wali Smith makes no excuses for the attacks, but understands where they come from. A community specialist who holds workshops on anger management and conflict resolution in various schools, he witnessed the Dec. 3 violence.
The South Philly native says blacks have always felt marginalized in the neighborhood dominated by Italians and Irish. Now, some students feel an almost unconscious resentment when they see their Asian counterparts studying on their special second-floor sanctuary, which was established to provide language programs and provide a more welcoming environment.
"Those (black) kids feel the majority of the staff there does not care about their education," Smith says. "They see these Asian kids come in and be nurtured, and they want that same kind of comfort."
Then there is a small group of troublemakers with a value system that says, "it's cool to be gangster," Smith says. "But really you're afraid, a scared coward. So you take advantage of weak people."
"It's not based on race, it's based on opportunity," Smith said of the history of violence against Asians. "If they go to the bathroom and take your money, and you don't report it, they'll just keep riding it until the wheels fall off."
The Asian students and activists reserve almost all of their criticism for administrators and the school district, which they say consistently failed to protect students.
A school district spokesman did not return a call for comment. Administrators have insisted that they responded to Asian students' complaints and tried their best to combat violence that has become part of the culture for some Philadelphia youths.
"These problems are long-standing and go beyond the school and into the community," district superintendent Arlene Ackerman said a week after the attacks.
A report by a retired judge, which was commissioned by the district, said there were confrontations between a small group of black and Asian students on Dec. 2 that led to the widespread Dec. 3 attacks on random Asians. The report was criticized by Asians who say it failed to account for years of documented violence and that investigators did not interview many student victims and witnesses.
Yet Duong Ly is still enthusiastic about his school. He says the English as a Second Language program is good, the teachers care, there are plenty of computers with Internet access — and it's all free.
"If I study hard I will get a lot of opportunities, scholarships, grants...," he says. "It's rewarding to work hard and study hard here, more than in Vietnam. I can go to a better school, go to college, get a career, then I can take care of my parents. So I like it more here."
He also likes his new home, a narrow, two-story row house bought from his uncle. They are the only Asians on the block.
The front door opens into the living room, where the family's bicycles (they have no car) share space with an old, fat television, couches and a folding table for meals. On the far wall is a handsome curio cabinet of polished wood, ornately carved, holding photographs of ancestors.
Tu Ly works as a cook in an Asian supermarket. His wife is unemployed. The family has permanent resident status and expects to become naturalized citizens within a few years. Recently, Medicaid paid for a hip replacement for Duong's mother.
"We owe this country a lot," Tu Ly says. "The government paid a lot of money for my wife's operation. We will work our best to contribute to society. My children can choose whatever job they like, as long as they do something to contribute to this country."
The boycott was not an easy step to take. Some students were afraid of being expelled. Many parents were against it, fearing their children would become even more conspicuous targets. Some said local activists were making the situation worse.
Once it started, though, attitudes changed. "After the boycott, I felt much more confident and powerful because our voices were heard by the people," Duong Ly says.
The district installed 126 security cameras. A "50-50 club" took Asian and black students on group outings. More bilingual staffers and diversity training were added. Principal LaGreta Brown was forced out on the eve of a faculty no-confidence vote after a local newspaper discovered her certification had lapsed.
All eyes are on the incoming principal. Otis Hackney III is 37, a black Philadelphia native, fresh from two years as principal of a mostly white suburban high school. He got the call from Philly one night when he was standing on the sidelines of his school stadium, watching a lacrosse game under the lights.
"My first thought was, you've got to be kidding me," Hackney says during an interview in his new office, the cinderblock walls bare except for a picture of the singing legend Marian Anderson, class of 1921.
Soon, though, Hackney accepted the challenge. His immediate agenda includes building a relationship with the Asian community and creating a group of school stakeholders who meet regularly to set goals.
Hackney says all students should feel comfortable approaching him: "I want to listen more than I speak. Students are often much more honest than adults." He bought a new conference table and spiffed up a room for community meetings: "The message is, this is an important place where we talk about important things." He's getting Asians out of their special floor and into the rest of the building. He's looking at United Nations-style translation headphones for immigrant parents.
He is the fifth principal in six years, and he wants to stick around.
There is much to heal. The Vietnamese embassy has complained to the U.S. State Department. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint with the Justice Department, which on August 27 found merit in the claims and advised the district to settle the matter. An investigation by the state Human Rights Commission is pending. The dynamic that exploded on Dec. 3 has not disappeared.
"If you're that angry and frustrated about something that your behavior manifests itself that way, what are we not addressing as a school, as a community?" asks Hackney. "As African-Americans, we can't forget our own struggle to the point that we become what we fought so hard against."
"That's one side. The other side is, when you have an immigrant population that comes in, what are the skill sets they need to function in this society? It can be very difficult for that child and that family to function in schools. So how do you put all that together? That's my job.
"Part of it is getting people to see the human side in every person, identifying with their struggle. Once people begin to do that, you realize folks aren't as privileged as you think they are. They don't speak the language. They don't have that many advantages over you. You're just not taking advantage of the ones you have."
Duong Ly had a busy summer: An internship at the University of Pennsylvania on Asian health issues; a psychology class at a community college; trips to conferences in Houston and Boston to discuss his new activism; being photographed for a Philadelphia magazine story that labeled the boycotters "heroes." In between, he spent a little time working on his college essays and a lot of time on Facebook.
On Wednesday, he will walk through the battered metal doors of South Philadelphia High to start his senior year at what he hopes is a changed school.
"I'm really looking forward to it," he says.
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