A new film released by the Philadelphia Student Union clearly shows School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms yelling over loudly chanting students that they were “probably in failing schools.”
The altercation occured on October 15, as more than a dozen students interrupted a screening of the pro-school choice film “Won’t Back Down” that Simms had been hosting at district headquarters by sitting down at the front and forcefully chanting “save our schools,” “Philly is a union town” and “the SRC has got to go.”
Students and PSU organizers at the time claimed that Simms made that statement, but video evidence available at the time couldn’t confirm it, as the sound of the students’ chants drowned out the commissioner’s voice.
In an interview the day after the film screening, Simms denied the accusation.
“I didn’t say ‘you children are going to a failing school.’ I was asking the children what school they go to,” Simms said in a telephone interview on October 16.
At the School Reform Commission meeting held that evening, many members of the crowd referenced the incident, calling for Simms to offer further explanation. She did not speak at the meeting, but SRC chairman Bill Green defended her, calling her “one of the most powerful voices for students and families in Philadelphia.”
Many of the protesting students at the Oct 15 screening attend some of the district’s top-performing magnet high schools.
Asked to clarify the discrepancy between her Oct 16 statement and the new video evidence, Simms, through a district spokesman, declined to comment.
A spokesman for Mayor Nutter, who appointed Simms, also declined to make a new comment. Last month, Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer brushed off the incident.
“Everyone eventually got what they wanted in the end. The movie was viewed. The students made their voices heard,” Shorr wrote in an email at the time. “That’s democracy in action, as far as I’m concerned.”
The Philadelphia Student Union received a $20,000 donation from the American Federation of Teachers this year for “representational activities.” After the initial altercation, PSU organizers insisted that the protest was conceived and carried out by students acting on their own behalf.
A PSU spokesman could not immediately be reached for further comment about the AFT donation.