Parents says it's too cruel at school for their kids

Posted: June 08, 2010

KINDERGARTNER ERNEST KEY is afraid of taking his pants off because two of his schoolmates sexually assaulted him in a bathroom at Lea Elementary in April, his mother said.

At the Vare School, Krisire Tuggles, also in kindergarten, refuses to go into a coat closet because that was the spot where his former teacher used to pinch him and smack him around, his mother said.

Since classmates at Heston Elementary School bloodied her nose and ripped her uniform, first-grader Aalliyah Brake has been too afraid to go back, said her father.

These little ones have two things in common: They've allegedly been violated during school hours at the hands of staffers or other students, and, their parents say, the adults responsible for their safety have done little if anything about it.

The exasperated parents of these young students were among several who echoed the same disturbing message in calls to the Daily News in recent weeks. The newspaper normally would not print the names of such young children, but the parents were so frustrated that they allowed use of their names.

They've confronted teachers and principals, and called school district management, but parents say they have been brushed aside or have been forced to turn to politicians, lawyers and police.

The parents who have gotten a response are unsatisfied with what they consider a lackluster resolution to serious crimes.

"What is it going to take?" asked Ryshida Wright, who said that attacks on her second-grader, Ryshyne Whaley, 9, at H.R. Edmunds in Frankford, have gone unpunished.

"Somebody's child is going to get killed on school district time, and maybe that's when something will be done."

Pulled from school 

Many parents throughout the district say that they've lost faith in the adults with whom they leave their children during school hours.

"I have no trust in the Philadelphia School District," Wright said.

Her son was tossed to the ground by a noontime aide and has come home several times this school year with knots on his head after being beaten by two boys, she said.

She said she repeatedly went to the school to complain after her phone messages weren't returned.

Principal Leroy Baker said that the aide had been disciplined, but, underscoring the disconnect between schools and the district's central office, a district spokesman said the incident with the worker was investigated and determined to be unfounded.

Both Baker and the spokesman said they had no record of Wright's son being attacked by the two boys.

"I should not feel like this," said Wright, who is keeping Ryshyne and her other son, Rymir Shaw, home from H.R. Edmunds. "[School officials] are just so nonchalant, and they're not worried because it's not their kids."

Another parent, Tanisha Hollomon, is beginning to wonder whether the school cares about her daughter, third-grader Nafeesah Hollomon-Gary, who was kicked so hard by a classmate at Thurgood Marshall Elementary that he fractured her foot.

Hollomon said that Nafeesah was hobbling around all day after the assault but that no one contacted her until after the school day ended.

She said that the principal, Edward Penn, acknowledged that she should have been called earlier but that when she pressed for the boy who kicked Nafeesah to be disciplined and tried several times to meet with his parents at the school, it took weeks for the school to suspend him.

Adding insult to literal injury, the district said that the few days that Nafeesah missed after the incident would be unexcused absences unless she produced a doctor's note, Hollomon said.

Calls to Penn were directed to the district's communications office. Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman, said school officials could not determine whether Nafeesah's injury had been a direct result of the assault.

The parents of kindergartner Ernest, who was accosted by older boys in a school bathroom, and Krisire, an autistic student whose teacher was accused of hitting him, remain unsatisfied after repeated attempts to reach a resolution with officials from their children's schools (see accompanying stories).

Parent advocates say that cases like these happen so often because there is little incentive for school staff to report violence, and that some school officials really don't care.

Ray Fisher, a family therapist at the Council for Relationships in University City, has worked with district youth for a number of years.

"The sense that I often got at the schools where I worked is that the kids didn't matter," he said.

That's because some administrators tend to ignore the concerns of poor parents and their children, who populate a majority of district schools, said University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Chad Dion Lassiter.

"We do silence the voices of the marginalized by not giving credence to their concerns," said Lassiter, who also runs a cultural-awareness program at South Philadelphia High School, where a number of Asian students accused school staff of failing to protect them from attacks in December.

And in other cases, Fisher said, administrators intimidate parents when they complain.

"Parents are afraid," he said. "They say, 'My kid is here for eight hours every day. What's this person going to do to my kid?'

"The parents are the ones with all the power, but a school system banks on the parents thinking they're powerless."

It's also convenient for officials not to respond, because a lot of parents don't know what their rights are, or to whom to turn to hold officials accountable, he added.

A school staffer, who didn't want to be identified for fear of reprisal, said the pressure from higher-ups to limit the number of suspensions and reports of serious incidents at schools far outweighs the need to address such concerns.

"They don't want to get pink slips, so they sweep things under the rug," said the employee, who has worked as a school custodian for more than a decade.

The employee allegedly witnessed several instances at one North Philadelphia elementary school in which school staff had seen students attack others, but had ignored the altercations.

"They wait until something drastic happens for them to address it, but then it's too late," the employee said.

If schools fail to intervene promptly, the victim could later become the aggressor, said David Lapp, an attorney who handles school discipline cases for the Education Law Center, Philadelphia.

"A lot of kids may end up lashing out and all of a sudden that kid becomes the disciplinary problem," he said.

Fisher can attest to that.

He counseled two students who ended up at disciplinary schools after they brought weapons to their previous schools. Those students had been sexually assaulted at the school and its staff didn't take action, he said.

"They decided that they needed to protect themselves, because they felt the staff wasn't," the students had told him, he said.

There have been several other cases in which assaults by staff and students resulted in the expulsion of the victim, he said.

"People look at the students [at disciplinary schools] like animals, but no one looked at all the times when they were asking for help" when they were younger, he said.

District notes resources

There are plenty of avenues by which parents whose children have been the victim of bullying or an assault can get the attention that they seek, district officials say.

At the beginning of each school year, schools distribute calendars with a list of regional superintendents and student handbooks that outline how parents could lodge a complaint, said Stephen Spence, executive director for the office of school operations.

The first point of contact for a parent with a complaint is the child's teacher, he said. If that doesn't work, then the principal should be notified.

"Every principal is supposed to reply to a parent within a 24-hour school day," said Karren Dunkley, deputy chief of the district's parent engagement office.

But if they don't, and complaints still go unheeded, parents should contact their regional office, she said. District officials also suggest calling the bullying hotline at 215-400-7233.

Lapp pointed out that parents also have the option of contacting the state Department of Education or taking their concerns before the School Reform Commission.

"A lot of the cases brought to the SRC get resolved," Dunkley said.

But the reality is that many parents might not know how to navigate any of these steps, and those who do say they have gotten resistance from school officials about going up the chain of command.

And what starts as parents' concern for their children often evolves into rage at the district as they try to navigate the bureaucratic maze.

"Ninety-five percent of the parents are just going to let it go because it's a complex system and they're intimidated," Fisher said.

"If I give you the song and dance for three weeks, I know in the fourth week you will let it go," he said of some administrators' handling of parents.

So out of frustration and fear for their children's safety, Lassiter said, parents - who are most likely their children's only advocate - sometimes believe they're left with no choice but to keep their children out of school.

Gregory Brake considered doing so with his daughter Aalliyah, the first-grader at Heston, after a boy in her class kicked her in the nose.

The boy was suspended, but that had been the last straw for Brake, who said that his daughter - picked on for being overweight - had also been punched in the head and that her clothes were torn and her belongings stolen in several separate attacks.

"This is the type of madness we've been going through all year, and I'm pissed off," he said. "It makes me feel as a father that I'm not doing my job. I'm feeling helpless right now."

After his numerous attempts to confront Aalliyah's teacher and principal about the bullying, the school transferred her to another class, he said.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman acknowledged that the process for parents to get answers about their kids, and the way schools respond, must be re-examined.

"On the surface, it looks fine, but underneath, the system is very, very broken," she said in an interview last month.

She said she plans to incorporate customer-service training for front-office staff and to open parent-resource centers next year where parents can take their complaints to the district.

Teachers will also receive additional training in classroom management, Spence, of the office of school operations, said.

But it's not enough, Brake said. He insisted that the district should get serious about holding school staff accountable.

"If teachers are allowing this [bullying] to continue, they need to be reprimanded," he said. "They're always pointing at the home when something's wrong, but not when something's going on at the school."

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