In late September, a high-level meeting was held at Philadelphia School District headquarters at 440 North Broad St. to deal with an emergency. Not an educational emergency, mind you, but a public relations one.
The state Education Department was about to release a report saying that 20 of the district's schools remained "persistently dangerous." Under the state's definition "dangerous" incidents include weapons possession, murder, kidnapping, and assaults -any infraction that leads to criminal charges.
What the district honchos at 440 decided to do at that meeting was to install surveillance cameras in 19 of the schools. Pronto. At a cost of $7.5 million.
What happened next is the subject of a story in the Sunday (Nov. 28) Inquirer by Martha Woodall and Bill Marimow. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman steered the no-bid $7.3 million job to a Mount Airy company, in a way that upset some senior district officials. The piece raises serious questions about the granting of that contract and I commend it to your attention.
My purpose is not to dissect the contract, but the circumstances that led to it.
The principal motive of Ackerman and the other officials in the meeting that day was not to solve the problem of violence in the schools, but to solve their PR problem. They wanted to look like they were doing something.
That, in a nutshell, has been the district's response to dangerous schools for years. To deal with the PR part of the problem, instead of the root of the problem -- dangerous students.
The landscape is littered with reports of outside experts, inside consultants, even a state-appointed school safety ombudsman, pointing to the inadequacies of the district's discipline system. The gist is that the district is (more often than not) incapable of dealing with bad actors by getting them out of the schools. Over the years, by signing off on various court consent decrees and by bureaucratic sluggishness, the system has tilted to work for the offenders instead of the victims.
This has led, at times, to surreal situations where victims of bullying, for instance, are disciplined for chronic absenteeism. Why? Because they stayed away from school fearing they will be beaten by the bully if they show up.
Over the years, outsiders have tried to wrestle with the problem. For instance, the state legislature created the office of safety ombudsman to provide an outside monitor. Last year, the office was shut down - the district got its allies in the Rendell administration to do that deed.
Also, the legislature insisted upon creation of alternative (read: discipline) schools as a place to send bad actors. But, the district has failed to fund enough slots in these schools and, with a looming budget crisis; my bet is that the contracts of these independent providers will be cut.
Since Arlene Ackerman became superintendent she has made changes as well. Two years ago, she instituted a "zero-tolerence policy" to move to suspend or expel those who commit serious offenses, such as bringing a weapon to school. But it is not a nuanced approach. Critics say the policy treats first-timers the same as truly bad actors; nabs the kid who makes a mistake once, in addition to the kid who is a chronic troublemaker.
The district has done another thing in a substantive way to deal with the problem. It has played with the numbers.
In my experience, the district has chronically under-reported incidents. I first discovered this in the 90's while doing a project on the schools with other colleagues at the Inquirer. School-by-school data on violent incidents revealed a wide variation in the numbers among schools that were very much alike in terms of size - the district's neighborhood high schools, for instance.
How could this be, we asked? The answer we got - through various school sources - is that principals under-report so as not to have their schools targeted as being dangerous or violent. Again, they wanted to make the school look safe as opposed to being safe.
Once this jiggering of numbers begins, it is hard to stop. A new principal who plays by the book and reports all incidents is likely to see his school's numbers shoot up. To outsiders it will look like the school has suddenly become more dangerous, when what really happened was a dose of honesty was injected into the numbers.
The numbers can go the other way, too. When the state's report finally came out this year it contained good news as well as bad - nine schools had been removed from the list of "persistently dangerous."
The list included several high schools - including Germantown and West Philadelphia - which, to all outside appearances, were not less dangerous. How did this miracle occur?
The cops call it "going down" on crime - under-reporting crimes or listing felonies as misdemeanors to make your numbers look good.
Once this kind of nonsense begins, it spreads. It enters into the bloodstream of the culture -- be it cops or schools -- and destroys credibility. And without credible numbers how are we to know the true picture and deal with it in a serious way?
So, by all means, install surveillance cameras in the schools, but to make them truly safe you need to put one in the principals' offices -- to record them filling out their school violence incident reports.