Head down, eyes averted and scared.
This was how College freshman Duong Ly went to South Philadelphia High School for three years. During the time he spent there, he struggled to stand up against Asian-targeted bullying while staying under the radar himself.
Ly is an active co-founder of the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia — an anti-bullying group for Asian students created soon after the South Philadelphia High School violence began to draw media attention. Ly is also serving as a liaison between his organization and the Asian Pacific Student Coalition, which plans to host guest speakers from the incidents to talk about their experiences as part of its recently launched anti-bullying initiative.
Ly, the son of Vietnamese refugees, immigrated to the United States and enrolled in South Philadelphia High School in 2008.
For Ly, moving to Philadelphia was an opportunity to settle down after his parents moved out of a refugee program to come to the U.S. When he arrived at school, Ly found nothing out of the ordinary and expected a normal high school experience.
But it wasn’t until his brother came home after being jumped by several students that Ly realized something was wrong.
“When I first went to school, I wasn’t really aware of the dynamics and the violent incidents going on,” he said. “[But afterwards] I started to feel really uncomfortable going to school.”
Ly realized that the school environment was hostile towards Asian students. Shortly afterward, some of his friends were targeted and Ly started going to school with the constant dread of one day being picked out in the hallways.
When his brother came home after a group of students attacked him a second time, Ly knew that the situation had become dangerous.
“I was shocked and I didn’t know what to do. I then asked him what he wanted to do,” Ly said. “But even if we reported the incident to the police, they would not do anything to follow up.”
After experiencing difficulty telling their story to the local police, Ly and his friends realized they would have to bring about change themselves. The students decided to organize a movement after a day when about 30 Asian students were assaulted and bullied.
But, Ly said, it was the administration’s lukewarm response to the incident that led him and members of the Asian community to push strongly for their cause.
“The administration sent a letter stating there was a ‘minor’ incident outside of the school,” Ly said. “We talked to the media about our story, about how shocked and outraged we were when the school had failed us.”
Fast forward to today, and Ly said the campus atmosphere at Penn has encouraged him to continue his campaign against bullying.
“I feel I take for granted the safety that I have at Penn,” he said. “Only a year ago when I went to school, I would feel afraid of being attacked.”
His determination has linked him together with the APSC’s anti-bullying initiative. According to College junior and APSC Vice Chair of External Affairs Jon Kim, the APSC has been in contact with ASAP to discuss opportunities for collaboration between the two groups.
By bringing in speakers who are familiar with the incident, “we just want to show that, if you believe in something, there is a lot you can do,” Engineering junior and APSC Chair Michelle Leong said. “A lot of students are discouraged by what they can’t do, but we hope that, given the passion and the drive that these students have shown, people can learn more about their initiatives and what they’re working on.”
Despite the appreciation Ly has shown for Penn’s open environment, he remains determined to stamp out violence back in his old high school.
“I feel very grateful for Penn’s open-minded environment,” Ly said, “but the violence in my high school should not have happened in the first place.”
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