City schools' trust problem

Posted: September 13, 2010

By Jack Stollsteimer

The recent news that the Philadelphia School District has seen its number of "persistently dangerous" schools drop by 20 percent should be cause for optimism. Disciplinary policy changes that I advocated while I was the state safe schools advocate, which were implemented with the strong support of Mayor Nutter and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in 2008, may be having the hoped-for effect.

With most matters in the school district, however, every step forward is accompanied by at least one step backward. While the superintendent once stood up to members of the School Reform Commission who had long abetted the violence, she has since failed to back up her antiviolence policies with concrete action.

Ackerman's ham-handed reaction to the victimization of Asian students at South Philadelphia High School is only the most obvious example. Continued cuts in alternative education programs for disruptive students are equally disappointing, as was the elimination of order-enforcing "climate managers" in neighborhood schools that need more capable adults, not fewer.

It's hard for longtime observers of the district to believe the data and trust that it's turned the corner on violence, partly because we've been lied to before. The district has supposedly had a "zero tolerance" policy on violence since 2002, but it failed to expel anyone for any offense between 2005 and 2009. The district reported school violence was on the decline from 2001 to 2006, but The Inquirer found that it had vastly underreported the data.

And when the victims first came forward to demand change at South Philadelphia High last year, the district reported that violence at the school had decreased significantly - only to backtrack and admit to a substantial increase later on. Apparently, Ackerman and her aides aren't very proficient at basic math.

So how can policymakers and parents understand the truth about violence in the city's schools? One way is through a reestablishment of the Office of the Safe Schools Advocate.

Created by the state legislature in 2001, the office was meant to serve as an independent voice for victims of violence and to analyze, verify, and report on the school violence data the district submits to the state each year. The office was closed last year - ostensibly because of state budget cuts, but in truth because it came too close to fulfilling its mission.

With the start of a new school year, it's time for the state to step up and make the city schools safe for the teachers, students, and parents they serve by restoring their advocate.

Jack Stollsteimer is an attorney and the former state safe schools advocate. He can be reached at

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