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Special Report, Part II: Violence at South Philly High

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By Jack Stollsteimer   

 

    Just as sure as the sun setting in the West, anyone who truly knows the workings of the  Philadelphia School District can safely predict the response it will have to any school violence crisis - all public relations spin, with little if any substantive policy discussions about how to make our schools safer.

    That was the case this week, when a group of courageous Asian students boycotted South Philadelphia High School to protest indifference by school and district officials to repeated acts of violence and bullying directed against them, mostly by African American students at the school.

   To me, as the district's former Safe Schools Advocate, the pattern of what happened at South Philly High was all too familiar:

   First, district officials denied the extent of the problem.

  Yes, they said, some Asian students had been victims of assaults, but overall incidents of violence at the high school on South Broad Street had dropped 55% since the same time last year.  Except that wasn't correct. The district later had to change its initial claim because it turns out the violence at this school is actually up 5% overall and up 32% in the category of assaults. This gap between what is actually happening at a school and what the district has knowledge of is an everyday occurrence,.

   When I served as the state's school violence watchdog I learned that the computer systems used by the school police and the disciplinary office are incompatible and cannot share data with one another. This means that no one monitors school violence incidents and the subsequent disciplinary action on a daily basis to spot trouble and gaps in the systems. When I was advocate, I recommended -- as have several outside management studies -- that the district remedy this problem by using everyday technology to merge the two databases.  I also recommended elevating the district's Chief Safety Executive by putting him in charge of both the school police force and the disciplinary office. It never happened.

 

Old complaints

    Second, district officials assured everyone they were investigating these assaults at South Philadelphia High and promised to take prompt action.

    What they didn't reveal is that some of these complaints go back to last year. In fact, in many schools across the district Asian students have been the victims of ethnic assaults for several years. And, now the district is going to investigate?

    Let me ask the district this: How is your investigation credible if your repeated indifference to the pleas for help from the victims led them to take the drastic step of boycotting classes to demand justice?  How can you expect them to trust that you will - this time, really -- pay attention to them and take action?

    Third, district officials pulled  out their "We'll get tough" card.  

     They said they would suspend any student caught committing assaults for the 10-day maximum with "intent to expel."  It sounds good for the TV cameras, but as students and teachers across the district know that threat is often empty. To expel a student - even a violent student - takes hours of fill out paperwork and attend due process hearings that  school officials, with all their other demands, often don't have time for.  The paperwork sits.  The hearings are delayed. The promise of action becomes a pattern of inaction. 

Ride out the storm   

 Also,  in order to fund other priorities, such as Mayor Nutter's dropout prevention initiative, the district has shifted money away from disciplinary schools, known as Alternative Education Programs (AEPs). This has resulted in a decline in available slots for violent and disruptive students at AEPs. To open slots for new cases, staff are often forced to push AEP students back to their  neighborhood schools after six months - regardless of whether they have made any progress in addressing the behavioral and academic problems that got them into an AEP in the first place.   

   The district will try to ride out the storm until the media moves onto the next big story. That would be a tragedy, both for the brave students who have made their stand for safe schools in South Philadelphia and for all the silent victims of school crime in this city.

   As I learned from personal experience, the only hope reformers have of changing anything in the failed bureaucracy that is the Philadelphia School District is if the news media shines a light on the problem. When the lights go off, the district goes back to its old ways.

    And make no mistake, the promise of school reform in Philadelphia is failing.

    The Philadelphia School District is a $3 billion-a-year operation. Yet it still has a 50 percent dropout rate and a customer base that lines up outside the doors of charter schools, hoping for a safe place for their children.

  For any educational reform to have a chance, the first step is to create a safe school environment for the district's employees and students. Otherwise, there is no chance the children will get the education they need to compete in today's global economy.

    The district's continued failure to make its schools safer is a sign of its failure as a public institution - and there is no way to spin that depressing fact.  

 

Jack Stollstiemer is an attorney who served as Pennsylvania Safe Schools Advocate from 2006 to 2009.

 

  

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