The blocks surrounding South Philadelphia High School are a melting pot of pizzerias fronted by Italian flags, African hair-braiding salons and a growing number of Chinese, Vietnamese and Indonesian restaurants.
Inside is a cauldron of cultural discontent that erupted in violence last month — off-campus and lunchroom attacks on about 50 Asian students, injuring 30, primarily at the hands of blacks. The Asian students, who boycotted classes for more than a week afterward, say they've endured relentless bullying by black students while school officials turned a blind eye to their complaints.
"We have suffered a lot to get to America and we didn't come here to fight," Wei Chen, president of the Chinese American Student Association, told the school board in one of several hearings on the violence. "We just want a safe environment to learn and make more friends. That's my dream."
Philadelphia school officials suspended 10 students, increased police patrols and installed dozens of new security cameras to watch the halls, where 70 percent of the students are black and 18 percent Asian. The Vietnamese embassy complained to the U.S. State Department about the attacks and numerous groups are investigating, including the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
The New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund joined the fray this week with a civil rights complaint to the U.S. Justice Department.
The Philadelphia school district acted with "deliberate indifference" toward the harassment and failed to prevent the Dec. 3 attacks, according to the complaint. It says Asian students' pleas for help and protection were ignored by school employees.
Asian students say black students routinely pelt them with food, beat, punch and kick them in school hallways and bathrooms, and hurl racial epithets like "Hey, Chinese!" and "Yo, Dragon Ball!"
Community advocates repeatedly told school and district administrators of that bullying, according to the legal defense fund's complaint, which was based on accounts and statements by unidentified students and teachers.
Black students say they all are unfairly being blamed for the actions of a few.
"They just want to look at everybody" for blame, said Ali Bailey, 15, a sophomore. "That's not cool."
Principal LaGreta Brown, the school's fourth principal in five years, was cited for a discriminatory attitude, particularly for referring to the advocacy groups' efforts as "the Asian agenda." On the morning of the attacks, the complaint says, she escorted about 10 frightened Vietnamese students past a large group of youths on a sidewalk.
"If you are afraid, then I will walk with you," the advocacy group says she told the students. But she soon walked away and returned to school, the complaint says, and the Vietnamese students were assaulted by 40 students, most of them black.
‘Makes no sense,’ district says
In response to this week's legal filing, the school district said it had not discriminated against anyone and pointed to increased security efforts since the attacks.
"The claim of 'intentional discrimination' makes no sense," a district statement said.
Brown did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment.
Students, administrators and community leaders say many factors are to blame, including language barriers and cultural differences that escalate smaller conflicts into fights. Many of the Asians are ESL students who speak little English and often must use interpreters.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and other school officials say the assaults followed an attack on a disabled black student by two Asian students the day before. But students say the violence goes back even further.
Trung Tran, a 17-year-old Vietnamese-American student who joined the boycott, said the bullying is rooted in a lack of understanding between the groups. He said then that he feared going to school and is at a loss to explain the conflict.
"It's just violence," he said.
South Philadelphia has been growing more diverse for decades, but the last 20 years have seen the greatest influx of Asian and Hispanic families. Many of the city's nearly 60,000 residents who report being born in China live in the neighborhoods, said David Elesh, an urban sociologist at Temple University.
Cecilia Chen, staff attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said her group has investigated similar conflicts in Brooklyn, Quincy, Mass., and Long Island in recent years.
"A lot of times, there is a new community that's developing in a neighborhood and that changes the dynamic and creates tension," Chen said. "It's a change. It's different."
Duyngoc Truong, a South Philadelphia High student who was bruised in the attacks, told the school board the students feel they were targeted just because they are Asian.
"It hurt our bodies, it also hurt our hearts," he wrote in testimony. "I don't believe that everybody is bad and I wish there is a place where racism doesn't exist."
At one district meeting, students held signs that said "Grown-Ups Let Us Down" and "It's not a question of who beat whom, but who let it happen."
Ackerman apologized to the students but was criticized for bringing a busload of black "student ambassadors" to one hearing — students who were not involved in the strife. She also stirred tensions when she complained that the cultural crisis was "taking up a lot of my time."
District spokeswoman Evelyn Sample-Oates said the school is investigating and that some of the suspended students could be expelled. She also said the district is cooperating with police, though no criminal charges have been brought.
The district has transferred one security officer, brought in more bilingual staffers and added diversity training.
Still, many students are reluctant to speak about the conflicts because they fear retribution. A few have spoken out.
"School districts are supposed to be protecting us," said Chaofei Zhenge, 19.