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W. Phila. High's fire policy is questioned

When is it acceptable, if a small fire is set in a West Philadelphia High School locker or hallway, not to evacuate students and staff?

When is it acceptable, if a small fire is set in a West Philadelphia High School locker or hallway, not to evacuate students and staff?

Never, in the view of high school Home and School Association president Marsha Brown, who told the Philadelphia School Reform Commission yesterday that a change in protocol this spring had "greatly compromised" student safety.

Sometimes, said district chief safety executive James Golden, if the fire is small and presents no danger of spreading. That way, he said, "the vast majority of students who want and deserve a quality education" can continue their studies rather than face constant disruption.

West Philadelphia High has struggled with a series of 23 fires this year, Golden said in an interview. He said most had been since early March, when there was an outbreak of violence at the school and principal Clifton James was transferred.

The school had been the scene of several assaults on its staff; James' dismissal triggered another wave of trouble, including several locker fires that led to school evacuations.

The school district reported no intentionally set fires in West Philadelphia High last school year, and 178 inside of all its 270 schools.

At West Philadelphia High, Golden said, it quickly became evident that the fires and evacuations might interfere with education and not stop anytime soon. And the constant calls to the Fire Department were "needlessly tying up fire department resources that could be needed elsewhere," he said.

So in early April, Golden said, the district and the department devised a "limited response protocol," under which nonteaching high school staff members would be trained to respond to, evaluate and put out small fires and notify the Fire Department but not evacuate the whole building.

The Fire Department is notified in every instance, Golden said, and the building is cleared if the potential for danger to staff and students or for property damage reaches a certain point. He would not go into specifics about what the point is or how it is determined.

There have been some evacuations under the policy, which applies only to West Philadelphia High, he said, but added: "The protocol has been effective in limiting the number of fires and the number of occasions where we had to evacuate. In every instance, there have been no injuries and no one placed in danger."

That doesn't comfort Brown, the Home and School Association president.

"This places the students in a situation of reckless endangerment," she told the commission. "It puts their lives in danger. . . . With fires of any kind, large or small, it is not acceptable to parents in our community that our students are held in the building and not evacuated."