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It is not every day that a school erupts in violence. But on Dec. 3, 2009, long-simmering racial tensions at South Philadelphia High School exploded, leading to attacks on Asian students that made headlines around the country.

Duong Nghe Ly, a member of Penn’s Class of 2015 and a high-school sophomore at the time, was a front row witness to the attacks that shook the school.

“Asian students were getting beat up inside and outside of the school over the entire school day,” Ly said.

“Students were running through classrooms to find Asian students to beat up,” Ly continued. “There was the lunchroom attack, and then it continued after school.”

Most of the students attacked were recent Asian immigrants in their first year at SPHS, and most of the attackers were black, according to a report commissioned by the School District of Philadelphia to investigate the incidents.

The report acknowledged that race played a factor in the attacks.

In all, around three dozen students were attacked and various had to receive medical attention for their injuries.

South Philadelphia High School — or Southern, as it is commonly known — has made the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s list of Persistently Dangerous Schools for four years running now.

“A student who attends a persistently dangerous school may apply to transfer at any time while the school maintains that designation,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website.

Ly, however, remained — and in a ceremony on Wednesday, he was presented with the Princeton Prize in Race Relations from Princeton University for his efforts in addressing the troubled school’s racial tensions.

Ly, whose parents are ethnically Chinese, was born and raised in Vietnam.

“We moved like six or seven times during those 12 years … the financial situation was tough,” and it was not until 2008 that Ly’s family received immigration approval to come to the United States, after years of effort.

Ly himself exhibited similar determination when he and a group of other students organized an eight-day boycott of the school following the attacks.

“We decided to speak up … we knew that we could not remain silent anymore,” Ly said.

The boycott was “against the school administration for their indifference and irresponsibility [toward] student safety and student relationships.”

Following the boycott, the students met with the School Reform Commission of the Philadelphia School District to discuss their experiences with racism at Southern.

After receiving training about dealing with racism, Ly traveled around the country to various conferences “to exchange experiences and learn more about others, as well as to send a message about the importance of fighting against school violence,” Ly said.

As a continuation of the activism against racial violence at schools, Ly and other Asian youth founded the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia in September 2010.

The group’s mission is to “empower Asian youth in general and to connect that relationship with students of other races,” Ly continued. To that end, the group has traveled to conferences around the country to discuss their activism.

While things have since improved at Southern — security cameras have been installed, a new principal has been hired and “there isn’t anymore physical violence,” racial tensions still exist at the school. “Since it’s existed for so long, it cannot be solved in one year, but we’re working on improving,” Ly said.

Ly’s unwavering determination, however, didn’t initially translate into confidence when applying to Penn. While he applied to other area schools, he “didn’t think he would be accepted to Penn anyway.”

After interning with the Penn Asian Health Initiative in the summer before his senior year, however, his teachers and mentors convinced him to apply.

On a December 2010 afternoon, one year after the attacks, Ly — an early decision applicant — waited anxiously to learn his fate.

“For the whole day, I just couldn’t breathe, I felt so nervous … I didn’t really talk, but I’m really talkative,” Ly said.

While using a teacher’s computer to check the decision at school, “I saw the words, ‘Hurrah, Hurrah Pennsylvania’ and I didn’t know what that meant at first,” Ly said.

“I couldn’t believe it once I realized I was accepted … my teacher was even more excited than I was, she was jumping around,” Ly said.

While still undecided about what he wants to major in, Ly, who was recently featured on the AngryAsianMan blog, will continue his commitment to advocacy. He has been accepted into the Civic Scholars program, and he plans to continue his involvement in advocating against racial violence among Philadelphia students.

“I’ll have to see how to arrange my schedule … the fight against racism will never stop, not in the near future,” Ly said.

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