Coming Under Attack

Posted: April 26, 2007

Germantown High School teacher Frank Burd - whose neck was broken after a student attack last month - knows what people are saying:

He's a catalyst, a poster boy, and possibly a turning point in the violence against teachers in Philadelphia public schools that has persisted for years.

It's not a role he ever wanted, or imagined.

He wanted to be a catalyst for his neediest students. "They're lost. They're hurt. . . . I try to give them something. I try to give them me. "

Now, as the math teacher recovers from surgery and faces the process of rehabilitation, he is coming to terms with his new role, "if it's a cause that keeps people safe. "

Burd's injuries drew national media attention and ignited complaints from Philadelphia teachers and their union, who contended that violence against teachers was on the rise in the 174,000-student district and underreported by some principals who want to make their schools look good.

District officials and city police last week announced more stringent penalties for students who attack school personnel and took away discretion from principals in reporting them.

Whether the problem really is any worse today remains debatable, although observers say an upswing in violence in schools would be no surprise considering the city's escalating homicide rate and violence.

District numbers show a 4 percent increase in assaults on teachers and administrators this school year, many of them committed by children in kindergarten through fourth grade.

On average last school year, three or four of the district's more than 11,000 teachers and administrators were assaulted on any given school day.

Philadelphia has had a slightly higher victimization rate than the national average for urban districts. In 2003-04, 5.5 percent of urban public school teachers reported being assaulted, compared with 8 percent in Philadelphia that year.

Numbers aside, Burd's case stands out for its severity. District veterans called Burd's life-threatening injury the worst case of violence against a teacher in decades. The news of the attack on Burd prompted West Philadelphia High School teacher Ed Klein to go public 10 days ago about a November assault that broke his jaw.

"People were so stunned. It reminded us that we haven't solved our problems yet, that we still have incredible problems," Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, acknowledged in an interview Friday.

Assaults on teachers, though rarely serious, have plagued the district for years, drawing public attention only when a particularly egregious attack or series of attacks occurred.

Six years ago: A second grader threatened to bring in a shotgun and kill his teacher. A high school teacher was out on workers' compensation for months after being jumped from behind, punched and kicked while trying to break up a fight. A chair was thrown at a middle school teacher, and weeks later she was threatened by the same student, who said she would pour gasoline on her and set her afire.

All these were reported in a front-page Inquirer article about teacher assaults.

Since that 2000-01 school year, the number of assaults on teachers and administrators has fluctuated.

District numbers show an uptick in 2002-03 and 2003-04 after Vallas instituted a "zero tolerance" discipline policy with sanctions for principals if they failed to report incidents. Reports of incidents peaked in 2003-04 at 1,024.

This school year, out of the more than 270 district schools, 22 have reported five or more assaults on educators.

Among them is West Philadelphia High School, which erupted last week after the principal was removed amid staff assaults. Teachers complained they were pushed, punched, slapped and threatened, sometimes without consequences for students. Of the 14 assaults reported there by Jan. 31, Klein's was the most serious.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says the numbers are higher than the district is reporting - an accusation Vallas disputed.

"The reason they are not accurate is that people are being discouraged from reporting," said Ted Kirsch, president of the union.

He said the union was looking into reports that teachers at one West Philadelphia elementary school must obtain permission from school officials to fill out a discipline slip. "You can't do that," he said.

Kirsch blamed what he perceived as a rise in assaults and disruption on a decrease in nonteaching assistants in the schools.

Two years ago, union records show, the district had 406 nonteaching assistants who helped with discipline and security, monitored hallways, and helped teachers handle problems in classrooms. Their ranks have shrunk to 242. Many teachers say that when they step into the hallway to look for help, no one's there.

Although the district has hired community groups to help in the schools, the union maintains they work part time and lack the training and experience of the nonteaching assistants.

West Philadelphia High School, which has reported the most incidents this year for a school its size, had six or seven nonteaching assistants a few years ago, said Vi Curry, the teachers' union representative who works with staff in the building.

This year there are three.

Ron Dillard, a nonteaching assistant who was assaulted there Wednesday, was substituting for an assistant out on disability for an assault.

On Friday, when three students were arrested on allegations they punched another West Philadelphia teacher in the face, sophomore Aisha Matthews said she felt for the teachers.

"It's hard for them to teach. They feel unsafe," Matthews, 16, said. "They need more , more cops. "

And parents worry about their children.

"My mom feels that I shouldn't have to come to a school where I don't feel safe. I should be at school to learn," Matthews said.

Vallas pointed out that he had doubled the number of school personnel aiding school security since 2002.

He's using more parent volunteers, parent truancy officers, "climate managers," and other employees - and fewer unionized nonteaching assistants.

Safety and violence prevention have been a cornerstone of Vallas' administration and yet remain, perhaps, his biggest frustration.

Within two months of his arrival in July 2002, he announced a "zero tolerance" crackdown on violence and disruption in the schools and threatened to fire principals who failed to report incidents. The policy, embraced by the union and parents, led to a large increase in reported incidents in the 2002-03 school year.

But it was no panacea.

Problems persisted: Shootings outside schools that claimed the lives of students. Large-scale fights in the big neighborhood high schools. Loaded guns found in lockers and hallways. A rape committed by a middle school youngster while classes went on around him. A kindergartner who punched a pregnant teacher in the stomach.

Each major incident prompted a new reaction from Vallas.

More security cameras, including high-power models expected to capture the scene around schools' immediate neighborhoods. More metal detectors. Special classrooms for young offenders. A more than threefold expansion of the district's outside-managed disciplinary schools, which as of Friday had 3,279 students enrolled. New schools for students who are older than average for the grades. And smaller high schools, which have shown better attendance and grades and fewer suspensions for disruptive behavior.

Vallas tried to put armed city police officers at the high schools, but Mayor Street rebuffed him.

The district also took steps to streamline its disciplinary process, hold monthly meetings to analyze attendance and school crime data, and beef up violence prevention and intervention programs - all points that drew praise from consultant Ellen Green-Ceisler in a report released March 1 that was largely critical of the district's disciplinary process.

Last week, Vallas announced a new teacher safety hotline - 215-400-STOP. It had received nearly 50 calls as of late Friday.

Vallas also said all assaults on staff would result in a 10-day student suspension and move for expulsion, along with felony charges. After a private meeting arranged by city Education Secretary Jacqueline Barnett, Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson stood with Vallas and promised to respond to all reports of assault and make arrests when the victim approves.

The new approach was welcomed by some who felt the curtain had finally been raised on the unruly atmosphere in some city schools.

"The consensus is we're glad to see that people are realizing there are severe problems in our schools and they're going to take action on it," said Lynn Strein, an eighth-grade teacher at Carnell School, which had 14 incidents of assaults on educators as of Jan. 31. "Finally someone is going to take us seriously. "

Strein said Carnell, in Oxford Circle, had handled the assaults appropriately.

At West Philadelphia High, where teachers were critical of the handling of assaults and threats, teachers' union representative Pat O'Hara said he was glad "there will be some consequences attached. "

Others, however, said the move would further criminalize youths, many of them troubled and hurting.

"We're turning our schools in a lot of ways into pathways to jail," said Howard Stevenson, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

Adults, who have "emotional power" over youth, sometimes provoke a child who already is troubled, he said.

"There are things that lead up to those aggressions. Very rarely do you have a kid who has no concern for human life or dignity that would act out," he said.

Stevenson called for a "tribunal" of adults to evaluate assault cases before punishment is meted out.

Vallas sees things differently.

"We shouldn't make excuses for violent behavior," he said. "We're always trying to find a reason to justify antisocial behavior. We're growing up in a blameless society. No one takes responsibility for their actions. "

Richard Mantell, principal of Frankford High School for 11 years, said each student's circumstances must be taken into account. On Thursday, two days after the district's new assault policy was announced, a ninth grader pushed an assistant principal - which, by policy, could have resulted in suspension and arrest.

According to Mantell, his assistant principal chose not to call police after she learned that the new student had been released from a psychiatric hospital five days earlier. The administrator called the girl's parents, who said she had been kidnapped and raped, Mantell said.

"She gets pushed into a large, comprehensive high school. Is anyone really surprised that these issues present themselves in our schools? " Mantell asked.

He said that he was outraged at Vallas' decision to remove West Philadelphia principal Clifton James last week, and that many at a principals' meeting last week shared his feelings.

"I've never seen this much anger generated among principals," Mantell said. "The principals are always the scapegoats. "

Vallas disagreed.

"If I blamed the principals, I would have removed more than one principal," he said. Teachers, principals, and central office staff have to stop blaming one another, he said.

"I want to blame parents for not taking responsibility for their kids. There needs to be some parental accountability," Vallas said.

Mantell said Vallas should reduce class sizes and increase the number of school monitors.

Ed Klein, the teacher whose jaw was broken in November, agreed.

"I was knocked out in 'broad daylight' in between classes at West Philadelphia High," Klein said. "A hotline, suspension, expulsion or arrest will not prevent this activity. There is a clear lack of personnel. "

Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, called for more counselors, psychologists and personnel. Her plea comes as the district, which operates on a $2.04 billion budget, faces a $37 million deficit this year and much larger shortfalls in subsequent years unless cuts are made or revenue increases.

"You can't police your way out of this. The kids are coming into the schools with issues and problems, and you need enough people there to deal with these problems," she said.

As Burd recovers, he said he had been moved by the many other students reaching out to him.

In the last two weeks, as many as 50 students have visited him, and others scattered around the country have called.

"I didn't know so many people remembered me. "

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

Reporter Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.

Highlights of the Plan to Combat Violence

A teacher safety hotline - 215-400-STOP (7867)- for teachers and other staff to report complaints directly to the office of the state's safe-schools advocate. Complaints will be dealt with the day they come in before 5 p.m.

An immediate 10-day suspension and move to expel any student who assaults or threatens to assault a staff member.

Proposals to change regulations to allow for students to be expelled permanently from the district to disciplinary schools. Now they can return after 180 days.

A review of the records of 150 students who recently returned to regular schools from disciplinary schools to make sure they are following rules. They could again be sent to a disciplinary school if problems are found.

A call for more funding for alternative and disciplinary schools and community policing.

On Teacher Safety

District hotlines

The Philadelphia School District last week set up a hotline for teachers and school district employees: 215-400-STOP (7867).

The hotline for parents, students and guardians to report violence is 215-400-SAFE (7233).

Parents can call the state safe-schools advocate's hotline: 215-644-1279.

To read the consultant's report on discipline in the Philadelphia School District, as well as recent news stories, go to http://go.philly.com/teachersafety.

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