Violence is key topic at school-reform-panel meeting

Posted: February 18, 2010

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman praised a youth group during yesterday's School Reform Commission meeting for launching a campaign to quell youth violence.

She vowed to stand behind the student group - which plans to present the district with recommendations - to gauge from the youngsters an effective way to deal with an issue she called a "public-health threat to this city.

"If we had an outbreak of more than 15,000 cases of measles in the schools this would be considered a health threat," she said, referring to the number of serious reported incidents in the district. "We've had 15,000 incidents and nobody is talking about this as a public- health threat."

That figure represents violent and nonviolent incidents, which include thefts and vandalism. Violent incidents last school year numbered about 5,700, which is a decrease from the previous year.

DeVante Wilson, a senior at George Washington Carver High School who spoke before the commission, said several factors lead to youth violence, including "bullying, negative school climates, physical and emotional harassment and also the underfunding of our schools."

Violence in schools is unacceptable because for many students, schools serve as safe havens from violent homes and neighborhoods, he said.

Wilson, 17, spoke on behalf of the 500-member Philadelphia Student Union, which plans to embark on a campaign to include the school community in efforts to reduce violent incidents and encourage students and parents to sign an anti-violence pledge.

In light of Tuesday's youth riot near City Hall in which a number of students who'd allegedly used a social network to plan a meeting were arrested, Ackerman said she would consider using social networks to connect with youth.

Education advocates at the meeting were not impressed by the superintendent's response, saying that the district has typically gone with the quick fix rather than a lasting approach.

"Our only solution is zero tolerance and it's not working," said Sheila Simmons, education director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, referring to the district's expulsion policy on violence, drugs and weapons - as she motioned to a sheet with a list of 25 students who are facing expulsion.

"You can't do it on a cheap. It's about preventing violence and changing the culture in schools and the community."

During the 2008-09 school year, the number of violent incidents decreased 14.7 percent from the previous year, said a district spokesman.

Since this school year began, the number of violent incidents reported is down 17.5 percent from the same period last school year, said the spokesman.

Despite the schools' downward trend in violence, juvenile arrests are up citywide, according to data from the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention.

The teen flash mob near City Hall on Tuesday resulted in 16 arrests.

Martin Luther King High senior Evan Frierson and his girlfriend happened to be near City Hall when the mob converged. He said that there's only one word he could think to describe the behavior of his peers that day: "stupid."

"I don't understand. I don't know why people fight. It's not cool."

In other news, actor Tony Danza showed up yesterday to support students on the Northeast High debate team who were among the four top winners in a citywide competition in December.

Danza gushed about the impact that debating has had on his students.

Danza, who co-teaches a sophomore English class as part of the A&E reality show, "Teach," said he was still enjoying his venture, nearly halfway through the school year.

"I'm very committed," he said. "This is something I really wanted to do."

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