Intergroup conflicts are a widespread problem in Philadelphia public schools that interfere with student learning.
Witnesses brought to the attention of the Commission a host of incidents involving intergroup conflicts between students who belong to myriad groups and attend different schools. The conflicts took various forms ranging from petty discourtesy and isolated acts of verbal aggression to physical and emotional harassment, bullying, and physical assaults. Here is a sampling of the testimony we heard organized in terms of the protected categories into which the victims fall (though in some cases distinguishing between victims and aggressors was not easy.)
Conflicts affecting students who are members of groups characterized by race, color, and national origin:
"Last year there was a Chinese immigrant student who was walking home after school. It was right in front of the building, and other students started just pelting rocks at her head. And she was on the ground and they just kept pelting rocks at her, and she had, you know, cuts and stitches all on her forehead."
"An Iraqi refugee, 18 years old, was assaulted and knocked unconscious by a group of youth outside of Northeast High School."
"Two years ago, these eighth graders...were coming to school, and what they were met with was racial epithets on the walls of the school, and they called them niggers, and they said, 'We're going to kill you.'"
"We very rarely have issues that come out blatantly having to do with racial relations, and in the last couple of weeks an incident that occurred in the lunchroom between a couple of teenagers that was about a girl and a candy bar—that was all it was, but it dissolved or evolved into an issue between our Dominican students and our African American students, and it happened to be Dominican [versus] Puerto Rican students and the African American students... [I]t started between two teenagers, a boy and a girl and a candy bar, and everyone else's friends, and evolved into something that it never should have been...[W]e called [the PCHR Community Relations Division] in because we felt it was getting out of hand and wanted to be proactive."
Conflicts affecting immigrant students:
"It's to the point where the kids that have the more difficult names to pronounce, they're changing their names. Kids are teasing each other because of their names. I had a young girl, she told me her name was Nicole, but when I looked at her referral, it was something totally different. I said, 'Why did you tell me that?' She said, 'Cause I'm embarrassed.'"
"When I started school, I was very excited to go to school. I didn't speak much English, but I get some help in my classroom. A few months later, I got beat up in the lunchroom from behind. So one time I got beat up. The authority show up and the police show up, took the report and call my parent and send me home, and then the next day when I was home I learned that my brother also beat up at school. I need more help, and then there was help. So the main office send me some help in assisting me after school. So when I was sent back to school I got more support, and that's helped me do better in school."
Conflicts affecting students who are disabled:
"In our school, we have had a few children who have autism. And one of the concerns that I have heard from a child is people teasing him because he mimics things or he has to have things done over and over again and the children get frustrated or that he's speaks differently, and they make fun of him...They get teased because they're different just like other children. But I really feel for them...It really is tough for a child who has no special needs to deal with harassment, but a child who has special needs - it makes it a little harder for them."
Conflicts involving sex:
"I had a gym class at the end of the period, and everybody, like, tells us to change out of our uniforms. We went upstairs, and it's like a door, you walk through the door, there's a boys locker room and you walk through another door, and there's no lock on it, so they can come in. As we was up there changing, all the boys ran in there, touching on the girls, feeling on them and stuff. And then, like, as the weeks went on, this stuff happened frequently."
"But from my experience, I feel that the girls sometimes are afraid to come up and speak about what happens to them. But like, from somebody that I know that she's telling me that she gets her headscarf pulled off of her head, but she doesn't bring it to the principal or anybody else. I don't know if she's - it's from shame or I don't know why. But like I said, the boys tend not to care or they're not shy, but the girls appear to be more shy, and they keep it to themselves even though they do face problems, but they keep it to themselves so."
Conflicts involving sexual orientation and gender identity:
"I can say I experienced violence from both sides, from the students as well as the staff. I went through finding myself - the last year of high school was the most difficult, with basically the kids calling, you know, "faggot" or "homo," or whatever the name may be. The staff confronted me with several different situations such as I was not allowed to express myself the way I am dressed today. I was told to be dressed as "Miguel" at all times I wasn't even allowed to be dressed as Mia and changed before the students got there. I was even faced with the decision at graduation, either to wear a dress to graduate or be valedictorian. Of course, I chose being valedictorian because I worked hard, and I knew it would look good on college applications. But with my situation and others, I'm just a little upset that it took this long for this situation and this hearing to come up because even before now, this has been happening and I don't see why it took so long to be recognized."
Many of these incidents are the product of the recent rapid diversification of the school-age population of Philadelphia through immigration and the greater inclusion of students from previously denigrated and subordinated groups. Several witnesses, however, pointed to the school system's longstanding history of intolerance and racism, particularly toward African Americans, as also contributing to the context for today's intergroup conflicts.
"And I came down today because this issue with school violence in this particular forum you're having today, it seems to have been prompted as a direct result of the violence that was perpetrated against the Asian community. Well, I attended school in Philadelphia...and when I went to that school about 15, 20 years ago, there was all types of violence that was going on, and no one ever considered having a discussion like this. So my purpose of coming today is to speak for the voiceless, to speak for the people that's been living in this community and nobody cared about. Now, I'm not saying that the Asian community should be victimized, but what about the people that are constant victims outside of the violence; the resourcefulness that has been diminished in that community, which has perpetuated into violence. The Asians and the African-Americans, the Europeans that all go to school together are all products of a deeper-rooted problem."
Our witnesses made it clear to us through their testimony that the discriminatory and abusive treatment that results from intergroup conflicts can be traumatic for students who are targeted and victimized. However, several witnesses explained how incidents of intergroup conflicts also negatively affect students who are not directly involved.
"Racial bias and harassment are really message crimes. They go out to an entire community. So though there may only be one victim, the racial slurs and other language that gets attached to the kind of assault that happened send a message to the broader community about who is valued or who is at risk within that community."
"If kids feel threatened, if they feel like they're not safe, if they feel like they're not respected, then it impacts their learning. They become depressed; they become anxious; they become socially withdrawn. You look at school failure and then dropouts."
Unfortunately, there is no reliable quantitative data on the dimensions of intergroup conflicts in the Philadelphia public schools. Although our assessment is based on qualitative evidence, the vivid testimonials we heard throughout the 11 hearings demonstrated to us that intergroup conflicts are a system-wide problem that is impeding the education of Philadelphia's children.