After budget cuts, violent incidents in Philly schools tick slightly up this year

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     Ray Porecca, special-education teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, pickets against budget cuts at a recent rally outside of the school. Porecca was assaulted by a student in his classroom earlier this year (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

    Ray Porecca, special-education teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, pickets against budget cuts at a recent rally outside of the school. Porecca was assaulted by a student in his classroom earlier this year (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

    Editor’s Note: Since this story first ran on Saturday, we’ve done additional reporting. The story has been updated to reflect per capita violent incident totals.

    The Philadelphia School District says the number of reported violent incidents in schools this year is comparable with last year’s levels, ticking up 1.12 percent.

    In total, district data shows that 1,266 incidents have been reported in the 2013-14 school year through January.

    In the 2012-13 school year, 1,252 incidents were reported through January.

    The district counts abductions and attempted abductions, assaults, drug and alcohol offenses, incendiary fires, morals offenses (which includes sexual assault), robbery, and weapons in the violent incident tallies.

    By far, assaults are reported in schools more than any other offense. Through January 2014, 660 have been reported, compared to 644 in the same period last school year.

    There have been 221 reported weapons incidents, well over one incident per school day. By this time last school year, there were 233 reported weapons incidents.

    Between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 district enrollment fell by 5,994 students. A more accurate look at the culture of violence in
    district schools this year can be seen by analyzing the rates of violent
    incidents per 100 students. Last year through January, the violent
    incident rate per 100 students was .89. This year, in that same time, the violent incident rate is .94.

    This represents a 5.6 percent increase in incidents per 100 students.

    This increase disrupts what had been a positive trend in the district. “The number of serious incidents have been declining for several years,” said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

    In September, the Pennsylvania Department of Education announced that only two Philadelphia School District schools qualified for the state’s “persistently dangerous” list based on 2012-2013 data.

    It was the third consecutive year that the district achieved a reduction of 40 percent or more in the number of schools listed as persistently dangerous.

    Between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the total number of violent incidents district-wide declined 32 percent, from 4,059 to 2,756. The district’s declining student population explained some of that fall off, but the overall percentage rate declined as well. Violent incidents per 100 students went down from 2.66 to 1.84.

    At the time of the announcement, Superintendent William Hite touted the progress.

    “Our principals and school-based staff have worked extremely hard to improve school culture, safety and climate. We know that much work remains, which is why we are increasing the use of restorative practices and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS),” Hite said. “Safety remains a high priority and we will continue working to ensure positive and safe environments for learning.”

    Anecdotal evidence

    But this years numbers come as a surprise to many educators across the district who, anecdotally, say they’ve seen an even larger uptick in incidents this year.

    District-wide budget cuts have slashed the number non-teaching-aides (NTAs) in schools this year. There are the same number of school police officers across the district, but individual schools may have either lost or gained SPOs depending on district strategy.

    Some wonder if there are fewer reported incidents in some schools because there are simply fewer people to witness and report them.

    “From my view, there is no one to catch the kids doing the wrong things. We have had at least 10 alarm pulls this year and we just cannot catch the kids,” said Feltonville Arts and Sciences middle school teacher Amy Roat. “There are no staff in the hallways. No staff witness, no data.”

    The shortage of staff has personally affected special-education teacher Ray Porecca, one of Roat’s colleagues.

    Porecca was assaulted by a student when attempting to stop a fight that broke out in his seventh-grade classroom. Most of the kids in the class have emotional-support individualized education plans, a population that’s long been more prone to violent outbursts.

    In this case, Porecca said the kids came into his class late. “There’s no NTAs in the halls to push kids into classrooms,” he said.

    Once in the class, one kid threw a school bag at the other, and mayhem ensued.

    “I got to protect the whole classroom, basically,” he said. “I’ve got ten kids in the room. Two of them are fighting. The other eight, someone’s got to take care of them. Someone’s got to make sure the other two don’t kill each other.”

    Porecca immediately called for school police assistance. Feltonville used to have three SPOs, one for each floor. This year, the school only has one SPO. When this incident broke out in Porecca’s third floor classroom, the SPO was on the first floor attending to another matter.

    “Usually the school police officer, he’s a guy who can get people to cool down kind of,” said Porecca. “But he couldn’t get there because he was dealing with something else…So nobody got there until about after 10 minutes of the incident going on.”

    In the meantime, with one of his students bloodied in the brawl, Porecca felt he had to act.

    “The kids got separated. I was standing in between the two,” he said. But then, when Porecca wasn’t looking, the student clearly getting “beaten” in the fight punched him — once in the stomach, once in the groin.

    “This wasn’t the first time I was threatened with bodily violence by the particular student,” said Porecca. “So, to me, he followed through on his threats.”

    The student in question, who is now back in Porecca’s class, was arrested for assaulting a staff member.

    Porecca and other staff and Feltonville wonder if the lack of guidance counselors and other support staff contribute to these types of outburts.

    Like many schools across the district, Feltonville is served by an “itinerant” guidance counselor who comes to the school about half of the week.

    “Kids will just have meltdowns really. There’s no one to come help them,” Porecca said. “If the counselor happens to be here, she’ll help, but if she’s not here, we just kind of have to deal with it.”

    This is an example of violent incident that was reported to district this year. If there are, as some teachers assert, others that went unreported, the district sees that as a big problem.

    “We really want to know if incidents are not been reported by schools,” said spokesman Gallard. “That is important to us.”

    In the graph below, the far right column compares 2012-13 through January, with 2013-14 through January.

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    Correction: A previous version of this story stated Porecca was chastised for the way he handled the described incident. Porecca was never formally chastised by the School District of Philadelphia.

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