Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Peace in our streets, in our time: the question remains

PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 16, 8:41A, local time

Here I sit after my morning meditation, some 72 hours after returning from Oslo and a host of activities celebrating and promoting peace efforts around the world, returning to the city I love and finding it still embroiled in shameless behavior following incidents of seemingly ethnically-motivated violence among young people.

Now, racial intolerance and violence are no strangers in this "city of brotherly love and sisterly affection." But what happened among classmates of South Philadelphia High School has been particularly appalling, particularly the response of the adults involved, those on whom children learn to rely for their protection.

Quick review: South Philly High serves a diverse array of young people, and assaults are up nearly a third over last year's tallies. There has been a number of reported incidents, but what has spurred so much outrage is when African-American students apparently beat some two dozen Asian students, primarily Chinese immigrants, earlier this month. Some say it was reported retaliation from a black kid being attacked by Chinese-American kids a day or two before. What followed was a boycott among Chinese-American students who cited fears for their safety and they refused to return to school, missing at least a week's worth of classes.

Community advocates and parents have alleged for some time that Asian students there, several of whom are new to the country, have been easier marks for bullies in that limited language and cultural fears have stifled reporting.

Forget the utter and sad irony that but a generation ago, or even less, it would have been African-American students falling to the violence of white colleagues. The acts of the aggressive students are beyond shameful. Here sits for the first time a president of the United States who not only looks like them,  but often encourages them to strive for excellence, who has been recognized on a world stage for such vision, and this is the best they can demonstrate?  But stupidity among young people is expected, which is why there is supposed to be adult guidance to lead them. Not in this case, judging by the glacially-slow public response from officials.

Yes, it is important sometimes to try and handle things behind closed doors, to diffuse anger. But parents and activists have been complaining and warning of counterproductive, even dangerous, environments for these students, and when these concerns, at least by published reports, had gone largely unheeded. And we're not talking about some attention-seeking blowhards. We're talking about people like Helen Gym, who long has been involved in fighting for quality education for all children. This issue has been out there. It certainly didn't look like anyone in power was listening.

PR 101 says get in front of the story, showing both the immediate and wider community that this incident has the full attention of stakeholders and policymakers. Instead, both district and city officials lagged behind, not responding publicly until nearly a week after the vicious attacks. What's still left unsaid is how peace can and will be encouraged and mediated among these young people, how resentments and tensions will be diffused. For those who believe in equality and justice for all, it should not matter the language these students speak or the color of their skin -- of either the attackers or victims. Clearly, deeper problems exist and need addressing.

It can be assumed that as long as people within the immediate school community are satisfied, all is well. After all, the boycotting students did return to school this week. That would miss the point. It's not unfathomable that others could leap upon these incidents and use them to fuel their own misplaced sense of entitlement and hate, that incidents such as this could be repeated elsewhere, buoyed by the implicit feel that it's acceptable to pick on those of perceived lesser status. That could be at this school or elsewhere. And ignoring that fact, attempting to go back to life-before-the-media-glare on this one would be a mistake that's disappointing at best, potentially dangerous at worse.

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