State says violence is down in Phila. schools

Principal Lisa Kaplan, right, poses behind a "1st Day of School" picture frame while she stops in to visit Ms. Melanie Chern-Pena's 1st grade class at Andrew Jackson School at 1213 S. 12th St. in Philadelphia. ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer )
Principal Lisa Kaplan, right, poses behind a "1st Day of School" picture frame while she stops in to visit Ms. Melanie Chern-Pena's 1st grade class at Andrew Jackson School at 1213 S. 12th St. in Philadelphia. ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer )
Posted: September 12, 2013

The Philadelphia School District celebrated some good news Tuesday.

The number of assaults and other violent incidents reported in city schools dropped 32 percent during the last academic year, and the number of schools on the state's dangerous list fell from six to two.

It was the third consecutive year that data reported to the state showed an improved school climate. And the district said the number of schools on the state's infamous roster was at a "historic low." As recently as four years ago, 19 city schools were listed.

"Our principals and school-based staff have worked extremely hard to improve school culture, safety, and climate," Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement.

Tuesday's announcement, however, was based on behavioral problems that city schools reported during the last academic year.

Many educators, parents, and students say they fear the recent budget cuts that led to massive layoffs of support staff and counselors over the summer could cause violent incidents to rise in the academic year that began Monday.

Hite said in an interview that he worried about the loss of guidance counselors and others as well. But he noted that the district had received grant money to expand training for teachers and other staff members in ways to improve student behavior and curb violence.

Announced in June, the $730,676 multiyear grant from the Philadelphia Foundation's Fund for Children will pay for training in restorative practices, intervention, and support to improve student behavior at 20 schools.

"We know that much work remains, which is why we are increasing the use of restorative practices and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support," Hite said. "Safety remains a high priority, and we will continue working to ensure positive and safe environments for learning."

State law requires schools to report serious incidents, including robberies and confiscated weapons, to the Department of Education in Harrisburg. Two years' worth of data were considered, and the state considered the numbers and enrollment in determining the most dangerous schools.

Schools on the list are considered so unsafe that parents have the option of sending their children elsewhere.

The state removed Beeber Middle School, Douglas High School, Frankford High School, Kensington Business High School, and Strawberry Mansion High School from the roster of dangerous schools, but kept Lincoln High School in Mayfair and added Sayre High School in West Philadelphia.

Shaw Middle School in Kingsessing would have been included, but it closed in June.

Some schools that had been considered dangerous in previous years, including Audenried, Olney, and Gratz High Schools, are now run by charter-school operators.

Timothy Eller, spokesman for the state Education Department, said no schools outside Philadelphia were on the persistently dangerous schools list.

The district said the number of reported violent incidents fell from 4,059 in 2011-12 to 2,756 last year. The rate of reported violent incidents per 100 students dipped from 2.66 to 1.84 in the same period.

Hite said the improvements stemmed from "the work that was started long before I arrived and work that has continued."

The problems with Philadelphia's schools have been known for years.

In the spring of 2011 The Inquirer published a seven-day, Pulitzer Prize-winning series, "Assault on Learning," that found that violence in the district was widespread and underreported, and that violent acts occurred in virtually every corner of the district.

The series showed that the district had 30,000 serious incidents over five years and that its main intervention program for helping students was little more than a paper shuffle. After publication, the state restored funding to a watchdog position - the safe-schools advocate - to help victims.

The School District also took several steps, including adding more training for school police officers, disclosing more information about violent incidents on its website, and changing the protocol for reporting serious incidents to police.

The School Reform Commission created a safety task force, which focused largely on prevention, and the district held a three-day school safety meeting for principals at the start of school last year.

Lincoln principal Donald Anticoli was frustrated about his school's remaining on the list.

The school has improved climate and discipline, and the number of serious incidents reported at Lincoln fell from 152 in 2011-12 to 86 last year, a 43 percent decline.

Lincoln, however, has 1,800 students and, according to the state, a school with more than 1,000 students that records 20 or more serious incidents is considered persistently dangerous.

"I'm not happy about it," Anticoli said, "but I think we're going in the right direction."


>Inquirer.com

Read The Inquirer's series "Assault on Learning," about widespread violence in the Philadelphia School District, at www.inquirer.com/assaultonlearning


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article.

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