High School bullies target English learners
By Carolyn Goossen
December 28, 2005
OAKLAND -- Li Jiang Hui is tired of being pushed around.
The Skyline High School freshman has been bullied ever since he
stepped on campus last September. Some would call him an easy
target: he's short, small boned, sweet-faced and a freshman. He
is also a recent immigrant from Hong Kong who is learning English
at school, a fact that may be making him and other English learners
on campus prime targets for bullying.
In the past three months Li has been verbally threatened and
physically harassed in the hallway; had his pockets frisked and
his bag searched in the bathroom; and had his bus pass stolen.
"The last time, two bullies threatened me and went through
my bag in the school bathroom, while their friend stood outside
the door to make sure no one was coming," Li says.
There were 212 English-learner students at Skyline last year,
and 46 of them were Chinese-speaking. Eleven of these Chinese-speaking
students and their parents came forward last month, saying they
have been repeatedly bullied. Li and his friends were among the
While the targeting of English learner students reveals the ongoing
problem of bullying, the hopelessness and frustration these students
and their parents feel exposes another reality: the lack of support
services and resources for non-English speaking immigrant families
whose children have been bullied. Twenty-five percent of public
high school students in California are English learners, and many
of them are also in schools that don't have bilingual staff or
Bullying is not a new phenomenon. Its prevalence in high schools
has been widely reported, and it is perceived by most to be an
unfortunate yet unavoidable part of growing up. According to the
last national analysis done on school bullying, 14 percent of
high school students in the United States report being victims
Some experts claim, however, that this number is much higher
for Asian-American students. Isami Arifuku, a researcher with
the Asian Pacific Islander Youth Violence Prevention Center in
Oakland, says that one out of three Asian students involved with
their organization report being bullied.
A recent report by The Coalition for Asian American Children
and Families found that harassment of Asian-American students
in schools is greatly underreported. Due to fear and a lack of
trust, students and parents do not report bullying, especially
those students who are recent immigrants and limited English-proficient,
according to the report.
Li and his 10 bullied friends did not turn to administrators
or to their teachers at Skyline for help. Their interaction with
teachers and counselors was very limited, and they didn't think
it would make a difference if their teachers knew, Li says, so
they decided to turn to each other. Together, they tried to devise
ways to avoid being bullied, but when it continued, they eventually
turned to their parents.
The teens' parents attempted repeatedly to have a meeting with
school administrators about the issue, but felt they were brushed
Frustrated, the non-English speaking parents turned to another
Skyline parent for help, who was also the Chinese-speaking family
liaison at their children's former middle school. The liaison
became the spokeswoman for the Skyline parents. "They didn't
listen to us, so I contacted the Singtao newspaper," says
the parent, who wishes to remain anonymous. The Chinese-language
newspaper she contacted covered the story, and administrators
agreed to a meeting the following week.
Parents and students voiced their frustration at not having an
in-language liaison to turn to for help. They also wanted to understand
why their children were being picked on by African-American students.
Administrators decided to bring in Youth Together, an on-campus
youth advocacy group, to help temper tensions between the Chinese
students and the African-American students who were bullying them.
The school also suspended several bullies and is considering
Tommy Reed, a staff organizer with Youth Together and a former
Skyline student, cautions people to not look at bullies and bullied
students as two separate groups. "Some of the students who
are bullying [students] on this campus were bullied," he
says. "I was an African-American student at this campus,
I was bullied, and I had to bully back, just to survive. People
are going to do what's done to them."
Abigail Sims-Evelyn, a life skills and history teacher at Skyline,
believes that the targeting of Asian students by African-American
students has to do with a mutual lack of knowledge. "It has
a lot to do with what I call good old ignorance. There is a disconnect,"
Skyline junior Antwan Carminer, a friend of one of the accused
bullies and an admitted former bully himself, doesn't think the
issue is race. "It's not about blacks robbing Asians. It's
about money. Some people are poor, and some are fortunate. Asians,
they have money," he says.
Speaking little English may be the primary reason students are
targeted. "If you're going to rob somebody, you don't want
to get told on," Antwan says. "So If they can't speak
English, and they don't understand, they will be targeted if they
As a result of the disclosure by the 11 bullied students at Skyline,
changes are underway to address the lack of resources for limited-English
students and parents, as well as the tension between different
groups of students. Youth Together is campaigning for both a Spanish-speaking
and a Cantonese-speaking parent liaison, for more buses and adult
supervisors on the buses, and for the development of workshops
about Asian and African-American history.
Skills coach Sims-Evelyn says that students don't know "the
history of solidarity between African-Americans and Asians...
Until we fill in those gaps and help children understand on that
level, then we will have this kind of reactionary behavior."
Li, however, has only one request: that the kids who bullied
him never come back to school.
Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen works for New America Media, an association
of over 700 print, broadcast and online ethnic media organizations
founded in 1996 by Pacific News Service and members of ethnic