Philadelphia Metropolis


Playing with Numbers

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SchoolViolence.gifA strange thing happened during the 2007-08 school year in the Philadelphia School District. There was a sudden spike in violent and non-violent incidents in the schools.

There were 14,743 incidents reported that year - the highest in the decade and 14 percent higher than the previous school year.

What caused this sharp jump in disorder? A sudden influx of out-of-control students? Something in the water fountains? Global warming?

As reporter Dylan Purcell explains it in the first installment of the Inquirer's new series on school violence, what happened was not a spike in incidents, but a spike in the reporting of incidents by principals.

A principal at a South Philadelphia elementary school had gotten in trouble for not reporting an assault - an incident that hit the papers.  Embarrassed by the disclosure, the district sent down word to principals to report every single incident.  For months thereafter, as then-schools Security Director James Golden told Purcell, the incident reports from the schools jumped higher and higher.

As Golden put it: "The principals said: 'You want reporting? We'll give you reporting."

Not to worry.  It was only temporary.  New Superintendent Arlene Ackerman arrived in 2008 and, as if in celebration (or realizing the heat from HQ was off) the number of incidents reported dropped. Violence in the schools?  Problem solved.

Of course, that didn't mean the public schools were any safer - then or now.  As the Inquirer series makes clear many schools are not safe. Violent incidents do happen.  Children are bullied, beaten up, attacked, harassed and otherwise terrorized by fellow students. Teachers are beaten and roughed up, too.

Alas, this is not new.  As one person who posted a comment on the series noted, it could have been written 20 years ago.

The fact that it hasn't changed is a scandal.

There is a lot that is unreal about the situation - the phony numbers reported by the district is one example - but what is real is the widely held belief among parents that their children are not safe in what are supposed to be sanctuaries of safety.

It is what fuels their desire - often desperate desire - to flee to Catholic schools, if they can afford them, or to charter schools. These are true sanctuaries in Philadelphia today.

Parents are not stupid.  They know, despite the district's protestations to the contrary, that the fundamentals of the situation have not, nor are they likely to change. 

The turmoil of the streets - petty feuds, gangs, drugs, bad behavior, the whole witches' brew - does intrude into schools.  And why not?  It is where young people spend most of their day. We can't hold school officials responsible for that intrusion.

What we can hold them responsible for is how they respond.  How do they mete out justice? What steps do they take to remove bad actors?  What policies and programs do they have in place to limit their recurrence or spread?

The district has official responses to each of these questions. Zero tolerance. Improved reporting procedures. "We are doing our best."

Here are the real answers:

One.  When it comes to reporting incidents, they finagle.  The numbers the district offers are not trustworthy.  They tend to understate - sometimes vastly - the extent of children behaving badly or violently. They cannot be relied on to provide reliable numbers.  Not now. Not 10 years ago. Not tomorrow. Not ever.  The culture of rewarding those who underreport is too deeply ingrained.

Two. When it comes to going after bad actors, the district's policy is inconsistent and ineffectual. Too often, justice is first delayed and then denied.  Numerous studies - internal and external - have revealed the inadequacy of the district's system for dealing with troublesome students and the whole panoply of "incidents" that happen in schools, One particular problem is that a whole class of students - those in special education- are, in effect, exempt from the normal disciplinary process to the degree that special ed students who engage in violent acts are sometimes returned to the classroom sooner than their victims recover from the assault.

The result is a 'Through the Looking Glass' Bizarro World where principals who are honest and thorough about reporting incidents are stigmatized for running out-of -control schools and students who are bullied - and stay home because of fear of having the crap beat out of them - are treated as truants by the district and suspended for missing classes.

This is not a problem. This is a tragedy.

And how do we deal with it?

I offer two general ideas:

Do not, under any circumstances, allow the district to "solve" this problem.  Look to outsiders, with independence and authority --not only oversee the district's disciplinary apparatus, but to run it.

Throw out all the restricting court agreements, provisos, political settlements, internal memorandum and dictums on discipline and replace them with a one-page plan of action - again, devised by outsiders - to deal with violence and mayhem.

Send a copy to every parent and child and let them know these are the rules - the real rules - we will live under from this day forward.

And enforce them.


-- Tom Ferrick




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