Report confirms shortcomings in city schools

Posted: September 07, 2011

A long-awaited report on violence in Philadelphia schools found that the district failed to report crime consistently, offered too little counseling for children traumatized by violence, and failed to implement solutions in all schools - all problem areas outlined in an Inquirer series published last spring.

The School District has begun implementing the report's recommendations, including establishing a new protocol for reporting serious incidents and crime in the 155,000-student school system.

The Inquirer's seven-part series "Assault on Learning" found that violence was widespread and underreported, and that reporting standards varied from school to school. Some cases in which students were gravely injured were labeled "fights" or "disorderly conducts," and were not counted as serious incidents.

Even so, the series showed that more than 30,000 serious incidents had taken place in the city's schools over five years and that on any given day, 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or became victims of other violent crimes.

"No one will know our schools are getting safer unless they can trust that the data we collect and report is valid and consistent, and that there is no 'down-coding' or under-reporting in an attempt to make a school look safer than it is," Mayor Nutter and acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II wrote in the report's opening section. "We need to reverse the current incentives so that people are not punished for being honest, and if our data has no credibility, our actions will have no legitimacy."

Under the new protocol, responsibility for reporting crime to the Police Department will rest with school police officers, a change that took effect Tuesday, the first day of the 2011-12 school year. In the past, principals generally had discretion on whether to report an incident or call police.

School police also are charged with taking all serious-incident reports and filing them with the district's central incident-control desk.

Other changes, including the implementation of districtwide practices for dealing with students exposed to trauma, are to be rolled out over the school year.

District officials declined to comment on specifics in the report, saying it was still in draft form and would not be formally released until later this month. Spokesman Fernando Gallard said the report is "very close to final."

The report was written by some members of a blue-ribbon commission convened last November.

The report obtained by The Inquirer was posted on a website for feedback from the commission's 100 members. The report was taken down later in the day after The Inquirer called for comment.

Nutter and former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman convened the task force, consisting of educators, students, public safety officials, neighborhood activists, and others. Organizers said at the time that the work was spurred by "the recent surge in youth homicide, school violence, ethnic intimidation, flash mobs, and 'catch and wreck' assaults on citizens."

The work also followed a series of hearings by the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission in the aftermath of racial violence at South Philadelphia High School.

The city supports the recommendations and realizes the district is faced with having to improve safety with dwindling resources, said Mark McDonald, Nutter's spokesman, adding, "The city is going to do everything it can to help."

The recommendations come as the district adjusts to cuts in its school police force to help close a budget deficit. The district laid off 190 per-diem school police officers, leaving a force of 436 officers - 386 full-time and 50 per-diem.

Chief Inspector Myron Patterson, who oversees the district's office of school safety, acknowledges that the cuts will leave more elementary schools without a full-time officer but maintains that a roving patrol unit will check in with those schools daily.

"We will have checks and balances in place," he said.

The force is adding training for officers this year and will emphasize the importance of the officers' building relationships with the school community they serve. The task force report also indicates that a memorandum of understanding is being developed between the city Police Department and school police, with "greater involvement" expected from city police.

In addition, Patterson said, there are plans for a new test that potential hires will have to pass.

Patterson said the new reporting protocol is "to address accountability."

Michael Lodise, president of the school police officers' union, said he was pleased that officers will have final say on the reporting of serious incidents and crime, but was concerned that principals will still try to interfere.

"Let them do the police work. That's what I've been saying," Lodise said of his members. "But my people and the principals will probably bang heads on certain issues, and we'll have to bring a higher authority in."

The task force recommends support groups for victims, offenders and witnesses exposed to trauma, in addition to more counseling. The report also says students should be given more opportunity to become involved in improvements.

The report also indicates that the district's "zero tolerance" policy will be modified, but offers no details.

The school system, too, lacks a platform to share best practices across the district.

"School leaders lack a consistent forum for learning about safety and climate strategies that work," it said.

Going forward, six district- and non-district schools will be identified as "best practice sites," spots for principals and other staff to visit and learn.

The report identified several schools where staff have successfully reduced violence and calmed the climate. Day Elementary - a school in East Germantown identified in the Inquirer series - uses positive behavior supports and peer mediation, for instance.

Nijmie Dzurinko, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union and a member of the blue-ribbon panel, said she was pleased with the report, particularly its focus on student voices and its recognition that "people and personnel and counselors can do more than cops and cameras."

She said she would be watching closely what happens next.

"In a challenging budget situation, how do we keep this a priority, on the front burner?" Dzurinko said. "There's a lot less personnel in schools now. They say the intention is not for it to sit on a shelf, for it to become policy. We need to make sure that happens."


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

Inquirer staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.

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