Philly schools commissioner Simms defends her action at film screening [video]

Thursday night will be the first Philadelphia School Reform Commission meeting since it terminated the teachers contract in a surprise meeting last week.

The event was already expected to attract a firestorm of protest, but emotions may have been further fanned by School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms scolding students at a film screening Wednesday night.

Simms organized a movie night for parents to screen the Maggie Gyllenhaal film “Won’t Back Down,” which offers a critical portrait of teachers unions as the protagonist fights to turn her child’s school into a charter.

Students in the advocacy organization Philly Student Union objected to the film and, about 20 minutes into the screening, started chanting.

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In a video that’s circulated the Internet, a visibly upset Simms seems to scold students for interrupting her event.

Exact phrasing is hard to decipher over the sound of the students, but Philly Student Union Executive Director Hiram Rivera said he heard Simms say: “You kids must be going to a failing school” and “You belong in jail.”

Simms offered an olive branch through two tweets Thursday. 

Students of @215studentunion I want to hear what you have to say also – and I’d like for you to hear me too. Let’s meet! #PhlEd

— Sylvia P. Simms (@Spsimms1) October 16, 2014

I believe in the power of parent action. Peace to the kids who expressed their opinions! #PhlEd

— Sylvia P. Simms (@Spsimms1) October 16, 2014

In a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, Simms said she wanted to “clear up the confusion” on the matter.

“I and other parents thought what they did was very disrespectful, not what they did, but just the timing,” said Simms.

Simms fell short of apologizing.  She also refuted the quotes Rivera attributed to her and Women’s Christian Alliance, an organization her sister Quibila Divine works for, which was a co-sponsor of the film screening. Simms’ group Parent Power and the school district were the other sponsors.

“I didn’t say ‘you children are going to a failing school.’ I was asking the children what school they go to,” said Simms.

“I’m against children getting locked up, number one,” said Simms. “That was not my mission and I would never try to get children locked up for just trying to be who they are.”

Lorri Shorr, the city’s chief education officer, addressed the flap Thursday afternoon, calling it an exercise in democracy.

Simms “was bringing parents together to help empower them to be productive change agents in their schools. The students wanted to protest some other message they perceived in the film,” Shorr said in an emailed statement. “That’s really all there is to it.

“From what I understand, everyone eventually got what they wanted in the end. The movie was viewed. The students made their voices heard,” she continued. “That’s democracy in action, as far as I’m concerned.”

Rivera defended the students’ choice not to wait until after the film to protest.

“The time for civil conversation is over. We’ve been going through this for the past two years now,” Rivera said. “There was no civil conversations when families and parents and teachers went and begged the SRC not to close their schools.”


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