What can be done to end violence in Philly’s schools now?

    For decades, students in Philadelphia’s public schools have suffered from violence, both from other students and surprisingly from teachers and administrators. What would it take to eliminate violence in the city’s schools?

    Abdul-Mubdi Muhammad, a principal at John Bartram High School, pushed a student last December during an argumentover the student’s dress code violation. For decades, students in Philadelphia’s public schools have suffered from violence, both from other students and surprisingly from teachers and administrators. What would it take to eliminate violence in the city’s schools? 

    In 2014, District Attorney Seth Williams proposed cracking down on elementary school truancy by prosecuting parents who don’t respond to intervention from the school district and DA’s office. Thankfully, the school district is not on board. Arresting parents would only make things worse. Imagine a child not going to school to avoid being bullied. Arresting the parents would give them a record and make it more difficult to support their family. The student would still be bullied and the child/parent relationship further strained.

    I experienced school violence

    When I turned 17, I dropped out the Beta Unit of the Parkway Program High School because I had been assaulted five times, including an attempted sexual assault and being beaten up by the school administrator.

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    In junior high, I was assaulted countless times. I was beaten in class while the teacher looked on and ignored it. Once a gym teacher punched me. Because I have intersex issues, I began growing breasts when I was 12. I was forced to take gym class with boys with my breasts exposed. I started asking to see the nurse so I could find an escape from the bullies.

    The school’s solution was to convince my parents to send me to a psychiatrist. The doctor began showing me pictures of boys with breasts and asking me why I thought kids beat me up. The question of why it was all right for boys to assault me never came up. I was the problem, not the boys.

    I wrote about this in “Smash the Church, Smash the State,” an anthology of personal essays from the early gay liberation movement. (You can download an excerpt with my chapter.)

    I dropped out so the School District could no longer force me to be assaulted. I actually thought I would be killed if I stayed in school. I have never felt that I recovered from the violence I suffered, emotionally or otherwise.

    From what I can tell, violence in Philadelphia’s public schools has only gotten worse. There are frequent reports of children being assaulted, teachers being assaulted, schools on lockdown. The violence affects not only bullied children, but also students who learn that they must be bullies in order to survive at school. When I was in school, male students were either drafted into gangs or victimized by them. And this was before drug gangs. Schools became criminal training grounds, which affected the surrounding communities.  

    I began asking Philadelphia city officials a simple question: What can be done to eliminate violence in the schools immediately?

    The role of law enforcement

    I brought the question up at a forum on violence at the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club annual meeting. District Attorney Seth Williams and Deputy Police Commissioner Myron Patterson were on the panel.

    Williams said his office has a division that handles cases where juveniles are alleged to commit a crime. In situations of ongoing bullying, he said, he needs the police on those cases and the parents to let his office know.

    “I’m in the schools about once a week to talk about anti-bullying,” he said. “Many, unfortunately too many, schools in Philadelphia have police officers assigned to them. At the same time, we don’t want what would normally be a disciplinary problem, where teachers would handle something, to turn into where kids get arrested all the time. Maybe schools should handle them. There’s a very fine line.”

    Patterson said the school district has policies and procedures for dealing with delinquency, truancy, and crimes committed in the schools. Beyond that, he said his officers try to avoid taking kids from the school house to the jail house. “My predecessor has already implemented a juvenile diversion program, where we’re not trying to lock up and give these kids records for these minor offenses,” he said.

    I asked Williams: “If a child is being forced to go to school and be beaten up, wouldn’t that be child abuse, and wouldn’t that be illegal?”

    Patterson responded: “The School District has certain policies, and I wouldn’t try to speak for Dr. Hite, the School District of Philadelphia administration, and neither is the DA.” He said we would need School District representatives at the table to respond to my question.

    But can the DA do anything to make the schools protect the children?

    “Anybody with sense wants the schools to be safe,” said Williams. “So we go where I use the bully pulpit to work with them to promote safe policies in the schools. … Also we prosecute people when teachers or students are assaulted in schools. Most important is trying to prevent crime. The most important thing, I think, is to try to reduce truancy.”

    I pointed out that truancy problem cannot be cured until students feel safe at school. And Williams agreed.”We want safer schools, too,” he said.

    I still wasn’t hearing any solutions.

    What do School District officials do

    I contacted Superintendant William Hite’s office at the School District. Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student services, responded. She pointed out that the number of Philly schools on the state’s “persistently dangerous” list has gone from 20 to zero.

    “Philadelphia is one of 10 jurisdictions nationwide participating in the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative Success Mentoring,” she said. “Philadelphia was also invited to participate in the White House Summit on School Discipline.”

    She said the District has received grants to support programs that “teach students about behavior, make expectations clear and consistent, and promote self-regulation and building community.” This includes reinforcing positive behaviors, teaching students to control their emotions, and allowing students to build and take responsibility for their school community.

    The District is also training school staff to recognize the effects of traumatic backgrounds on a child’s ability to learn and to better understand how to help their students.

    “When violent incidents occur in our schools, we have various staff members that work on climate issues to assess the circumstances and environment and make recommendations,” she said. “We also engage the School District and Philadelphia police when necessary.”

    I tried to contact Marjorie G. Neff, chair of the School Reform Commission, and eventually received a response from commissioner Farah Jiminez.

    Jiminez, who formerly led the People’s Emergency Center, a West Philly social services agency, said that the District has seen a “real drop in violent incidents on our campuses” in recent years.

    “It would be ideal to be able to say that violence will never again be present in schools,” she said. “However, arriving at that place requires a broader community solution that recognizes violence involving students — whether on or off campus — is generally symptomatic of larger conflicts emanating within the community.”

    What’s happening at City Hall?

    Council-at-Large member and longtime public schools advocate Helen Gym said she thinks school safety can be improved by focusing on restoring basic supports so classes can run smoothly — appropriate numbers of teachers, support personnel, nurses, and counselors; and materials such as textbooks and paper.

    Crisis response planning is another focus of her attention. Referring to a stolen gun at one Philadelphia high school and a shooting at another, she said, “Those are crises within schools, not just crimes committed. Students need counseling and supports, dialogue, and attention to their psycho-social needs in circumstances in which there is an extreme situation in order to feel safe.”

    Gym said City Council will be holding hearings in the coming months on the impact of five years of reduced state funding on safety, essential services, and academic outcomes in Philadelphia public schools and vulnerable student populations. These are issues that she said affect both academics and safety.

    “Schools should safe-havens for students, and parents should never have to fear the welfare of their children,” said Mayor Jim Kenney’s chief education officer, Otis Hackney, adding that the mayor is working with the District’s school safety team to find the best ways for the city to support anti-bullying and anti-violence initiatives.

    Crossing the line into child abuse?

    So much of what has been said by city officials seems to be incremental steps toward a safer future. What about the present?

    I asked a lawyer who works with child advocacy whether allowing a child to be assaulted in school could be regarded as child abuse.

    In Pennsylvania, the term “child abuse” includes “serious physical neglect by a perpetrator constituting prolonged or repeated lack of supervision or the failure to provide essentials of life, including adequate medical care, that endangers a child’s life or development or impairs the child’s functioning.”

    Child abuse is an action or failure to act, or a series of such actions or failures, that causes non-accidental serious physical injury or imminent risk of serious physical injury. Bodily injuries are defined as creating risk of death or causing permanent disfigurement or protracted loss, impairment or function of a part of the body. Physical injuries are defined as causing a child severe pain or significantly impairing physical functioning.

    The attorney did not think that a case could be made for the District being liable for child abuse. I wonder if that could be a matter of interpretation. Bullied students often suffer serious physical (and mental) injury that is non-accidental. If a school is not proactive in preventing it, or knowingly allows bullying, could that be regarded as abuse?

    We need action

    So, I ask again: What can we do now to eliminate violence in the city’s schools? I do not think anyone I spoke to specifically answered that question, but I think it deserves to stand alone and not be buried among other issues.

    Touting a reluctance to prosecute violent children, as the DA does, addresses a different problem.  What I am asking about is what can be done to prevent school children from being assaulted.  

    The issue is not about budget cuts in Harrisburg, either, as Gym suggested, because violence existed in the school district decades before those cuts.

    Colleges have to report violence on their campuses. They also have to assure students, faculty, staff and parents that their campuses are safe. Why not the School District of Philadelphia?

    One thing that could be done immediately is holding open and ongoing discussions among students, parents, and teachers to identify dangerous situations within and outside of schools and ways to remedy them.

    Escorts could be provided for children who need them so they can travel between classes and to the bathroom safely. Escorts could also be organized to see children home safely. Community schools could be used to respond to threats of violence.

    Perhaps the city or School District should create an ombudsman for children so they can report threats and have them resolved in a timely manner.

    Violence in the schools has to be eliminated immediately. Not at some point in the future, but now. We can’t expect children to learn when they are scared to go to school.

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