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It was still early in the pandemic last year, before schools were shut down, when word of the coronavirus being detected in China had traveled to a schoolyard in the San Fernando Valley.
One middle-schooler went up to another student who is of Asian descent, accused him of carrying COVID-19 and told him to go back to China. The Asian American boy responded that he wasn’t Chinese.
“And then the other kid punched him in the face and head 20 times,” said Manjusha Kulkarni of Stop AAPI Hate, who assisted the victim’s family in the aftermath of the attack.
As the pandemic lifts and campuses plan to fully re-open in the fall, Kulkarni is among the leaders in the AAPI civil rights community who are pushing the Los Angeles Unified School District to use the summer to prepare against more bullying incidents.
Coalition member Donna Tang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA said she’s concerned that anti-Asian harassment will spike as classrooms fill up again and that targeted students won’t report such incidents.
“We’re really worried about the mental health toll it's going to take on our Asian parents and students, especially those in communities who have a lot of already traumatic experiences,” said Tang, referring to refugee families.
The February 2020 case of anti-Asian bullying in the Valley has provided the coalition with a blueprint of what it wants the country’s second-largest school district to accomplish over the next several months.
Among the group’s requests:
— Develop bystander intervention training for teachers and other staff in partnership with community organizations. Tang said she hopes that teachers will get “salary points” as they do for completing other training.
“We really want [the district] to not only work with us to create these trainings, but also find a way to incentivize and really help teachers and staff be motivated to take these trainings,” said Tang, who is AAAJ-LA’s Education Equity Coordinator.
— Adopt restorative justice responses, not harsh punishments. Kulkarni said that in the Valley incident, the victim’s family was not looking to penalize the bully.
“The mother [of the victim] is a social worker and understands issues around the school-to-prison pipeline and around juvenile incarceration, and she did not want that to happen to the child who was engaged in bullying,” Kulkarni said.
Tang said that the district should be ready to offer mental health and social services to both the student doing the bullying and the victim.
— Make the district’s mental health hotline accessible in Asian languages. Last year, the district opened a hotline for students and families to call for help, "to manage fear, anxiety and other challenges related to COVID-19,” but it is only available in Spanish and English.
"I don't know that folks are able to access [the hotline], especially our monolingual families and students," Tang said.
On Monday, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner joined coalition members at a news conference. He said he looks forward to working with the coalition, but did not address their specific requests.
Rather, he said that some 1,500 health workers in the district had already received training on bias and xenophobia.
He was joined by several Board of Education members in voicing support for AAPI students.
“For nearly 20% of students in our schools that are part of the Asian diaspora, health and safety also means protection for bullying and harassment,” Beutner said. “The pain is real."
Also speaking were Asian American parents and students who made their case for greater intervention by the school district on their behalf.
Sixteen-year-old Millie Liao, a student at Los Angeles County School for the Arts, said “even just one word could have helped so much.”
“The silence from all other parties when Asian American youth face discrimination makes it feel normal,” Liao said. “We should feel like we just have to toughen up and deal with it. But there's only so much we can take.
Liao said they were still kids, after all, and sometimes they get scared.