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Amid attacks, school principals concerned over Asian Americans' return to class

Parents are scared not just of the bullying in school but also of the harassment other adults could direct at their families on the way to school.
Image: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in San Francisco
School buses are seen parked at First Student Charter Bus Rental as the spread of coronavirus continues in San Francisco on April 7, 2020.Stephen Lam / Reuters file

A New York City principal said the families of many of her Asian American students have been fearful as heightened levels of anti-Asian sentiment continue alongside the coronavirus pandemic and with violence toward Asian Americans gaining more national attention.

Racist incidents and attacks on members of the Asian community in public have, in part, persuaded some families not to send their children back to in-person schooling, administrators say.

The New York administrator, whose school has a Title I distinction — meaning it has a significant percentage of low-income students — said students' "fear is real even if they are two blocks away from school."

"They're afraid of leaving the apartment and coming to class, because they might get mugged or hit," said the principal, whose school has a significant immigrant population. She spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

Across the country, people of color, including Asian Americans, are disproportionately more likely to keep their students remote, research shows. But the disparity is particularly prevalent in some areas, like New York City. About 70 percent of Asian Americans opted out of in-person learning, the most among all racial groups and almost twice the proportion of white students.

Parents are scared not just of the bullying in school but also of the harassment other adults could direct at their families on the way to school.

For example, administrators say decisions about schooling have been heavily influenced by reports last year of the stabbings of several members of an Asian American family in Texas who authorities said were targeted because the attacker "thought the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus."

The reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate collected almost 2,800 reports of hate incidents nationwide over five months during the pandemic. Most recently, older Asians in Chinatowns across the country have been targeted in a wave of robberies, burglaries and assaults; Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, was pushed to the ground by an assailant in San Francisco in January. Ratanapakdee died of his injuries days later.

The New York principal said many families have already experienced harassment, making the fear all the more real.

"One mom said that she took her daughter on the train to come to school. And someone confronted her: 'Why are you taking your child on the train? Why aren't you keeping them at home?'" the principal said. They were "accusing her of not only endangering the child, but being that they're Asian, they're putting the overall train at risk."

Anxiety about such confrontations is so severe that the school is mailing supplies out "to the tune of hundreds and thousands of dollars by the end of this school year" because families are too frightened to pick up supplies, she said.

Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College and author of "Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough," said wealthy families are likely to be more comfortable sending their children to in-person learning sessions because they have access to more protective practices and equipment in general and they may trust their well-resourced schools to handle safety precautions better. But many Asian American students, in New York City in particular, come from low-income families and may not have that privilege.

The New York administrator also said more low-income Asian American families have been firm in their decisions to keep their children remote. Many of her students, she said, are raised primarily by older immigrant relatives, grandparents or babysitters who know little English. Their parents, often restaurant or other blue-collar workers who are new immigrants, take jobs out of state to support their families. Most of the children live in tenement housing, with several families in one apartment. Such dynamics make those Asian Americans uniquely easy targets for people looking to inflict harm, she said.

"For them to come public, they would lose their home because they're subletting illegally," the principal said. "The people targeting them know many of them can't go to the police."

She also said many families indicated that they fear retaliation if they report racist incidents. And because police often don't provide translators or help in navigating the complex criminal justice system, many in the heavily immigrant population distrust law enforcement.

"When you live in the tenement and you report somebody, they can come back and the police won't be there for you," the principal said.

The principal of a separate New York City school that has a large low-income, immigrant population said her students had similar fears. She said the concerns began early last year, with many families refusing to allow their kids to leave their apartments.

"The older kids, last year's fifth grade that graduated, when this all started they were very fearful, they were concerned about 'why is this happening to us? Why are we being blamed for the coronavirus?'" said the principal, who also spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. "When I talk to kids now and ask: 'Have you been outside? Have you gone out to the store?' a lot of them have said no."

She added: "Parents are also stressed out, and though they would like to have their children back at school, fears of getting the virus, as well as anti-Asian sentiments, has caused them to remain remote."

Bullying within schools is also a concern among parents, experts say, as more districts move toward reopening. Dhingra said that before the pandemic, Asian American children had already been experiencing bullying disproportionately tied to certain trends. A study of first- and second-generation Chinese American students, for example, showed that they are often harassed for their academic abilities, immigrant status and language barriers. The research also found that Asian Americans were bullied because of their physical features.

Dhingra said racism tied to the virus could aggravate pre-existing issues as schools continue to open up. A report released in September by the Stop AAPI Hate Youth Campaign, a high school internship program at Stop AAPI Hate, indicated that one-quarter of Asian American young adults had been the targets of racism over the previous year.

"The rise of anti-Asian racism under coronavirus has made possible resentment, if not outright bullying, more intense and maybe more accepted," he said.

Experts say bullying could be mitigated with more education and awareness about both the virus and the Asian American experience. Sherry C. Wang, an associate professor at Santa Clara University's School of Education and Counseling Psychology, said bystander intervention could prove helpful in such instances by tackling the harassment and alleviating fears. She said the onus falls not solely on Asian Americans to lift themselves up when the are being targeted, but also on allies to point out racism.

Wang said that because the education system largely erases the stories of Asian Americans, their struggles and their activism, adults and children often default to the prominent but false narratives about the group. It's up to educators and parents in the home to dispel misconceptions and ensure that they are having real dialogues about race.

"There's always an exclusion of Asian Americans in conversations about race," she said. "I think a lot of these attacks are perpetuated, and with kids, that it's really easy to just absorb that. I do think schools have a responsibility to then intervene. But to some degree, how much can schools do if parents themselves are using the same language at home?"