Wei Chen, Bach Tong, Duong Nghe Le & Xu Lin: Philadelphia, PA

Asian immigrant high school students who led an eight-day boycott to stop school violence

South Philly High is a tough place.  Its grim structure occupies an entire city block, and inside its imposing walls student groups stake out their own territory. It used to be a very violent place, especially for recent Asian immigrants.

When Wei Chen’s father brought him to Philadelphia from China, he spoke no English and had no knowledge of the community’s history of tense race relations. But he discovered immediately that Asian students at the school were being systematically beaten by groups of other students, and that the school administration was doing nothing to stop it. Not knowing what else to do, Wei believed his best chance lay in keeping his head down, working hard and not attracting any attention.

That didn’t work. A month after starting school, he stood at his locker reaching for a book when a fist smashed into the back of his head, and another into his neck.

Hundreds of Asian students lived in fear for most of the school day. Most of the school staff had given into the violence and accepted it as inevitable. Instead of fighting back, the students often begged their parents to drop out of school.

Wei studied the civil rights movement tried to organize students to stand up against the attacks, boycott classes and demand that the school administration take more aggressive action to prevent them.  But too many were fearful of reprisal and disapproval from their own parents, who were culturally resistant to challenge authority.

Wei formed a new group called the Chinese-American Student Association. He greeted all new Chinese immigrant students as they first arrived at the school to help them make the transition. And he started keeping a notebook, detailing assaults on immigrant students. Before long he had filled it with excruciating details of violence and administrative neglect.

On December 3rd, 2009, 30 Asian immigrant students were violently attacked and sent to the hospital emergency room. In the days following the melee, Wei brought forth his notebook, full of names and phone numbers for every student he had welcomed to America in the past two years. In the weekend after the attacks, he called each of them, calling anew for a boycott.

He got to work encouraging other students to stay strong and resist the adults who demanded they return to the school. In a city that struggles to get its young people to attend school, Wei had to fight to keep his friends from sneaking back into class. He drafted a letter for the other students to take home to their parents, explaining the cause. He sent a representative to the school to collect homework assignments, and created an enrollment form that concerned students could sign to show they weren’t just taking an unauthorized holiday.

More than 50 Asian students joined Wei in protest over the next eight days. They eventually filed a civil rights complaint against the District. Their actions garnered national attention and created change at the school. The principal resigned and her successor has made school safety a priority. Some 126 new security cameras were installed throughout the school and extra security staff and counselors were brought in. Most importantly, Wei and his fellow students refused to blame other students of color for the violence, instead insisting that the administration take responsibility for school safety.

Wei showed a level of maturity, clear headedness and equanimity beyond his years. His example has inspired other Asian immigrant students across Philadelphia to create Asian immigrant student organizations in their own high schools.  Wei and others have also started a citywide Asian student organization, Asian Student Association of Philadelphia (ASAP), which is working with other youth organizations on Philadelphia’s Campaign for Non-Violent Schools.  Wei’s physical and moral courage have inspired students citywide to see the possibility and necessity of challenging schools to creating safe learning environments for all students, including immigrants.

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The Freedom From Fear Awards are produced by Public Interest Projects, (PIP).  PIP is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that brings together and strengthens the work of philanthropic institutions, donors, nonprofit groups and other public interest organizations sharing a vision of a society that ensures justice, dignity and opportunity for all people.   Statements and activities of Freedom from Fear Award winners do not necessarily reflect the views of PIP.

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