Philadelphia Tribune, News Report, Eric Mayes
“I think everything is getting better,” said Amina Velazquez, 18, a graduating senior.
Violence, which some said was racially motivated, paralyzed the school on Dec. 2 and 3 and resulted in a boycott by a group of Asian students who said they were afraid to attend classes because of tensions with African-American students. The incident resulted in 22 suspensions, an independent investigation, a public outcry and caused a media frenzy.
That frenzy has been slow to die.
South Philadelphia High School remained the center of attention through much of this year, with critics calling for the resignation of former principal LaGreta Brown, who was finally forced to step down after it was discovered she lacked proper certification. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has also drawn fire for what critics said was a slow response to the violence.
Despite the negative press, students have pushed for and made real change at the school.
Racial tension and violence have been longstanding problems at South Philadelphia High.
“Before Dec. 3 I felt scared,” said Ngoc Troung, a 17 year-old junior. “Last year the violence happened too, but nobody cared about it. And this year, luckily we have our community leaders to help us. I think everything has gotten better now.”
Three of the four students interviewed said that before the December incidents they saw fights as often as three times a week. There was sometimes a racial aspect to the violence, but often there was not.
It was the racial edge to the incidents that brought so much attention to the school, Troung said.
“They made such a big deal over the Blacks versus the Asians, but there is Black on Black crimes every day and they don’t talk about that. We didn’t have publicity for all those fights,” she said.
Yet improvements have been undeniable.
“Now I rarely ever see an argument go down in school,” Velazquez said.
“And if there is we have something to handle it,” said John Russino, a 16-year-old 10th-grader. “Peer mediation.”
The mediation program was one of a series of initiatives put in place by school officials. Others included more and more diverse security guards, security cameras, diversity programs and added activities to encourage cultural understanding.
“Basically, there was no understanding,” Russino said.
Efforts to improve relations between ethnic groups inside the school continue. Many ideas come from the students.
“I think we should have more activities for students, more field trips,” said Hajah Swarey, 17, a junior.
She recently suggested to interim principal Ozzie Wright, who replaced Brown, that the school should host a series of events that allow different ethnic groups to show off their cultures.
She, like many others, has joined a group called the 50/50 Club, which brings students from different ethnic groups and backgrounds together to socialize. They take trips, enjoy activities and go out to eat together.
“I’m making friends,” Swarey said. “When you get to know other students you feel safer.”
Though the school year is ending, the returning students vowed to make sure next year is different.
“We’re going to try to make sure that these activities that they used to keep cultures interacting – keep going,” Russino said. “We’re going to make sure that they do it next year.”
Perhaps, the violence and its aftermath have, in the long run been a good thing.
“You always wind up getting something back in return,” Russino said.