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High School bullies target English learners

By Carolyn Goossen
New America Media

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 group.

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 specialized resources.

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 of bullying.

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 aside.

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 expelling them.

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," she says.

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 have money."

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 media.




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