It's official: Report says Philadelphia schools fall short on dealing with crime

"No one will know our schools are getting safer unless they can trust 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 wrote in the report, discussed before the School Reform Commission.
"No one will know our schools are getting safer unless they can trust 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 wrote in the report, discussed before the School Reform Commission. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 18, 2012

The facts are sobering, if not surprising - the Philadelphia School District has failed to report crime consistently, offers too little help for students traumatized by violence, and fails to implement the most effective methods citywide.

The promises are lofty - more focus on violence prevention, more transparency concerning violence data, improved reporting, more and better training.

More than a year after the Blue Ribbon Commission on Safe Schools was convened by Mayor Nutter and then-Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, its work was made public at a School Reform Commission meeting Tuesday night with the release of a 41-page report.

The report echoes the main findings of "Assault on Learning," an Inquirer series that found that Philadelphia School District violence was widespread and underreported, with reporting standards varying widely from school to school. Some cases in which students were seriously injured were downplayed and not counted in the district's serious-incident tally, which stands at 30,000 over five years.

"No one will know our schools are getting safer unless they can trust 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," 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."

SRC member Lorene Cary, chairwoman of a new committee on safety and public engagement, introduced the report.

"What has happened in the last week and a half gives urgency to this safety work," said Cary, referring to the recent shooting death of three teenagers in Juniata Park.

Cary said the report was only a start; a steering committee made up of herself, district staff, and community organizations will continue to monitor safety matters and seek community input.

The district has begun implementing some of the report's recommendations, including establishing a new protocol for reporting serious incidents and crime, modifying the zero-tolerance and expulsion policies, and making monthly school-by-school violence data publicly available.

The amended expulsion policy has meant a drastic reduction in the number of students permanently removed from traditional district schools. Last year, the SRC voted on 237 expulsion cases; from September through January of this year, it has seen only 11.

Chief Inspector Myron Patterson, who works for the Police Department but is in charge of School District safety, said he believed that clarifying reporting procedures and shifting responsibility for reporting possible crimes from principals to school police officers had helped.

This year, "reporting has been consistent," Patterson said at the meeting. He said morals offenses in elementary schools were up, a sign that "reporting is taking place, pushing through, where last year, some such incidents might not be reported properly."

The report identifies six "best-practice" schools, where district officials believe safety is handled proactively with good results. They are Cayuga Elementary, Tilden Middle, Furness High, Vaux Promise Academy, A.B. Day Elementary, and Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus. It says those will become models for others.

It also says that programs that focus on violence prevention will be spread.

The reality, however, is that the district is in a fiscal crisis. Officials said that because of budget constraints, they were "strategically implementing all of the tenets that are common throughout all of the recommended prevention strategies" rather than spending money to buy programs.

Another cited problem - "schools do not have adequate therapeutic counseling, treatment, and social support services for students and families" - also seems tough to fix in a budget crisis. The report recommends establishing support groups for victims and offenders; it also calls for "additional education and social supports to meet student needs."

Cary said the district cannot afford to avoid developing prevention strategies.

"We have to do it anyway," she said. "The children are in school every day, and we've got to figure out what we can do."

One solution, she said, was provided by the city's Commission on Human Relations, which studied violence and intergroup conflicts in schools. The commission will work with the district to provide free training on existing bullying and harassment policies to every staffer and student in every district school.

Community volunteers - including law students and graduate students in education - will be trained to help.

Last year, the district identified 46 schools where safety was a pressing issue; this year, it's down to 38. Twenty-three of the so-called Focus 38 schools have experienced decreases in their violent-incident rate, the district said.

But districtwide, there has been a 2 percent increase in the rate of violent incidents this school year, officials said.

The mayor, who attended the meeting, called the report was a start but said more work must be done.

"The entire city must be focused on the issue of education and the critical issue of public safety in and around schools," Nutter said.

Tuesday night marked the SRC's first informal committee meeting. About 70 people sat in a circle - community members mingled with commissioners - and there was a loose vibe in the room, with people simply raising their hand to speak, instead of registering in advance as they do at typical SRC meetings.

The SRC is scheduled to hold a traditional voting meeting Thursday.


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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