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Young and Violent, Even Kindergartners

Children ages 5 to 10 assault staff and classmates. Some commit sex offenses.

This 10-year-old North Philadelphia boy was put on probation in Family Court last June after being charged with simple assault for punching his teacher in the face at Kenderton School in Tioga. (John Sullivan/Staff)
This 10-year-old North Philadelphia boy was put on probation in Family Court last June after being charged with simple assault for punching his teacher in the face at Kenderton School in Tioga. (John Sullivan/Staff)Read more

Tabitha Allen blames herself for her 10-year-old son's violent behavior.

Growing up and living in a drug-infested, hooker-inhabited neighborhood, the 33-year-old mother of five is angry about life.

"My anger reflects off my children," Allen explained one morning in the North Philadelphia rowhouse she inherited from her grandmother. Her son - a thin, almost gaunt, boy with long eyelashes - punched a teacher last June at Kenderton Elementary School, a K-8 in Tioga. He knocked the glasses off her face and blackened her eye with a blow that packed unexpected power.

As a 10-year-old, he had reached the minimum age to be arrested, and ended up with a simple assault charge in Family Court, where he was put on probation. He was removed from Kenderton and transferred to a classroom for disruptive elementary school students in Logan.

Only last week, Allen said that her son was disciplined for having a BB gun at his new school. She said it was a misunderstanding and that the gun belonged to another student.

Allen's son typifies a disturbing side of violence in Philadelphia schools.

A yearlong Inquirer investigation found that young children - from kindergartners to 10-year-olds - have been assaulting and threatening classmates and staff members with increasing ferocity and sophistication.

A number of the attacks had sexual elements - there were 187 morals offenses during the last five years in schools with grades no higher than fifth, and 1,118 in all elementary schools, including K-8 buildings. About 60 percent were classified as indecent assault.

Children 10 and under account for nearly 18 percent - more than one in six - of all students committing offenses reported in the entire district, according to 2009-10 data submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education and obtained by The Inquirer.

The Inquirer looked at violence in that age group because, by law, children under 10 are not arrested.

A sampling of incident reports filed by school police during the last five years, coupled with interviews, offers chilling accounts:

In October 2010 at Dobson Elementary, a K-8 in Manayunk, a classroom assistant was spat on, punched and kicked - all by a kindergartner. The aide suffered torn ligaments and tendons in a hand.

At Southwark Elementary, a K-8 school in South Philadelphia in October 2010, a 10-year-old boy "body slammed" into his teacher with such force that she suffered a concussion as she fell to the ground.

In June 2009, a Douglass Elementary student issued a startling warning to a second grader at the K-8 school in North Philadelphia whom she was choking: "I know where you live, and I will burn your house down."

In April 2008, in a third-grade classroom at Taylor Elementary, a K-5 school in Hunting Park, one child held a knife against a classmate's throat and threatened to cut off his head if he snitched.

At the K-8 Morris Elementary in North Philadelphia in February 2008, an angry 9-year-old punched his pregnant teacher in the stomach.

In December 2007, on the playground at Richmond Elementary, a K-5 school in Port Richmond, a 10-year-old girl's classmate forced her head down to his groin.

During the 2009-10 school year, an Inquirer analysis shows, eight of the top 10 highest rates for morals crimes in the district were recorded in elementary schools.

More than half of the 177 elementary schools - including K-8 buildings and other early learning schools - reported a morals crime in 2009-10. Ninety percent have dealt with at least one sex crime in the last five years.

Overall violence rates rose in nearly half the elementary schools, according to a five-year Inquirer analysis of the district's raw data through June 2010.

Likewise, of the elementary schools that include at least one grade above fifth, about half reported increases in violent crime rates over the previous year.

Eleven of the district's 41 schools with no grade above fifth saw their violent crime rate increase in the last year.

Three of those schools - Smedley, a K-5 school in Frankford that became a charter in September; Cayuga, a K-5 school in Hunting Park; and McClure, a K-4 school also in Hunting Park - had a violent crime rate for 2010 that was higher than the district's overall average, including high schools.

Concerns have arisen even at some of the district's most highly regarded elementary schools.

Pollock, a K-6 school in the Northeast, was recognized as a national Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education in 2007 for its consistent increase in test scores.

But last spring, a group of staff members and parents wrote to Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman about violent acts occurring there among young students.

"The fights and bullying that go on here every day and the lack of discipline being taken by [the principal] is horrible," they wrote. "We have had students swing at us, curse us out, threaten us that they will get our kids during school when we are breaking up fights in the morning and after school."

District spokeswoman Shana Kemp said conditions at the school had improved, thanks to principal Marilyn Carr.

"Principal Carr has done a great job of engaging the community as a part of her efforts to improve the climate at the school," Kemp said, "and we hope that that continued community-building will lead to even greater improvements in the climate at the school."

Facing young violence

The school system is also overwhelmed with young students living amid poverty, violence, and disorder, some of them largely unparented.

Often, the district has failed to heed the warning signs of violence in its youngsters and figure out a systemic plan to address the problem, with dire consequences.

"By the time they get to middle school and high school, [violence] metastasizes like cancer," said Charles A. Williams 3d, director of the Center for Prevention of School-Aged Violence at Drexel University.

During the last several years, district officials began a handful of programs they say make for a good start, including a bullying and violence prevention curriculum in K-12, said Benjamin Wright, assistant superintendent of alternative education, who oversees discipline in the 155,000-student district.

More than five years ago - when Paul Vallas was still running it - the School District also created alternative classrooms for violent and extremely disruptive third and fourth graders within regular elementary schools scattered around the city. It hired Abraxas, a Houston company, to oversee these special classrooms.

Children in kindergarten through second grade who commit violent offenses remain in their schools - sometimes in the same classroom - and get help. Or they can be transferred to another elementary school.

Transfers at that age rarely happen, Wright said. The district, he said, doesn't keep records in its central archive, but he maintained that no more than five cases occurred in the last school year.

He opposes sending children that young to alternative schools or classrooms. They are in school to learn good behavior, and it's not right to banish them to a disciplinary setting, he said.

"In kindergarten, you're supposed to teach kids how to act when they're going through school," he said.

Wright says the problem is due in part to poor responses by staff, who inflame rather than defuse bad behavior.

Take the case of a young student who refuses his teacher's directive to take his seat. "Does that mean that child's being disobedient? No, that means the child is bored.

"So you might want to say 'OK, I'll give you five minutes to move around and then I'm going to ask you to take your seat.' "

If the child still won't sit, let him stand but say, "You must keep working," he suggested.

Wright also blamed the staff's unequal treatment of boys and Hispanic and black students.

"A boy can't do what a girl does in some schools. A black or Latino kid can't do what a nonblack or Latino kid does," he said.

He also said that adequate counseling and resources were available and that the staff received ample training to deal with problem students.

But teachers say their schools lack enough training, psychological services, and coordination with other agencies to address the problem.

In a recent survey of more than 750 teachers and aides, conducted in a partnership by The Inquirer and Temple University, nearly equal numbers of educators in elementary, middle, and high schools said the problems of violence and disruptive student behavior are getting worse.

Violence worsened during the last three years, said 53 percent of the respondents who work at elementary schools. In middle schools, 57 percent said it was worse, and in high schools, 59 percent.

Those working in the elementary schools, the survey showed, are as likely as those in middle and high schools to see bullying, fighting, and physical attacks on students every day.

Attack in a school library

Keron Howard, 8, wasn't safe in the school library.

He was reading Pirates of the Caribbean at J. Hampton Moore School in the Northeast when several classmates - who had been teasing and bullying him for months - approached. He said one third-grade boy slammed him to the ground, another kicked him in the stomach, and a third put him in a headlock.

"We all hate you, Keron," he said one of the attackers - a girl - told him.

When he went home that night, he complained of such head and stomach pain that his grandmother, Mildred Fisher, took him to an emergency room. The Feb. 2 attack was the last straw for the retired day-care operator.

Fisher had complained to the school several times over the last year and a half about her grandson's bullies. She also had called the district's safety hotline and complained to an official at the central office.

Asked about the incident, district officials said Keron did not report to teachers that he was injured, and staff members did not see an assault. An investigation found that "some type of physical action occurred," according to Kemp. Three boys were disciplined and the school also offered to put them and Keron in different classrooms, or transfer Keron to another school.

"I feel like he's entitled to an education at a public school," Fisher said, "but there was no way I was going to send him back there. It's not right that I have to worry about him being in school."

Even though she couldn't afford it, Fisher placed Keron at a $4,000-a-year Lutheran school.

The move was worth it, she said.

"I can see the change. He's getting better marks. He's paying attention. He's in a better mood going to school and when I pick him up."

Teachers, staff attacked

Sometimes, teachers are the victims.

Takia Conner was four months pregnant, and some students in her special-education class at Morris Elementary School were becoming jealous. They would say she wasn't their friend anymore and point to her stomach.

"They were having a hard time with me having a child of my own," she recalled.

A 9-year-old boy, who was in foster care and had a history of aggression, rushed at her one day in February 2008 when she denied him something he wanted.

He punched her square in the stomach - so hard that it knocked the wind out of her.

"He wasn't sure he'd done anything wrong," said Conner, who has since left the area and teaching.

"We really don't know what to do with second graders whose first instinct is to throw punches," she said. "Everyone thinks they'll outgrow it."

Conner said that in the past, she had repeatedly asked for more help with the boy. It was only after the attack that an aide was assigned to shadow him during the entire school day.

"I honestly believe the School District, as well as other districts, needs to take a look at the whole student, the whole body of needs from mental health to behavior, and employ the proper professionals to help," she said.

A school psychologist should be readily available, she said, but her school had to share one. And the school's counselor was strapped for time, filling in for regular classroom teachers, a duty counselors are routinely drafted to perform.

Hearing of the case, Wright said pregnant teachers should know how to protect themselves.

In this case, he said, the teacher should have given the boy what he wanted at the time and then called for help.

"If I'm in a school, and I'm a teacher, and I'm pregnant, make sure I don't put myself in harm's way, because the kids are going to be kids," Wright said.

Tracee Sigler, a classroom assistant, was attacked four times this school year - most recently by a 5-year-old kindergartner at Dobson Elementary who kicked and punched her. She tore ligaments and tendons in her hand and required surgery.

Sigler was only at Dobson for three days before the kindergartner lashed out.

Wright was skeptical.

"He probably only weighs 65 pounds. I can hold that kid off until some help comes," Wright said.

At the beginning of the year, in three separate incidents at Alexander Wilson Elementary in West Philadelphia, Sigler was punched, cut and stabbed.

One student was responsible for all three injuries, she said. Her pleas to the administration to remove the boy, a sixth grader, went unheeded.

"I'm a single parent," said Sigler, "and I can't be in a position where I'm afraid to go to work because I might not come home."

Sigler said school employees should receive training on how to defend themselves from attacks: "We need to know how to protect ourselves," Sigler said.

She returned to Dobson for one day in February, only to find that her attacker was still at school. She quit and has moved out of state.

In October, at Southwark Elementary in South Philadelphia, a 10-year-old special education student was having a full-fledged tantrum. He flipped furniture over, threw a chair, ran into the hall, and began kicking lockers. Then he started attacking classmates.

When his 5-foot-1 female teacher intervened, he "intentionally body slammed" into her in an attempt to get at another student, according to a school police report. She was knocked into a brick wall and hit her head on a door knob as she fell, losing consciousness.

"I woke up on the floor," said the young teacher, who asked not to be identified.

The teacher provided medical reports on her condition to The Inquirer, and teacher union officials corroborated her story.

Her principal, she said, told her to "get it together" and continue teaching that day, which shocked her.

Greg Shannon, a district administrator, however, rebutted the teacher's account. He said he spoke with principal Margaret Chin, who told him she did not direct the teacher to return to the classroom. Chin declined to comment.

The teacher said she tried to resume work, but began having memory and dizziness problems. Later that day, she went to the office in tears.

At colleagues' urging, she sought medical attention on her own; it turned out she had a concussion.

She later went to the police station to press charges against the student. The student remained in the school for several weeks, she said, but then was removed and sent to a disciplinary school.

She has left Southwark and now teaches at an elementary school in Kensington.

Glynnis Gradwell, a teacher at Ellwood, a K-6 school in East Oak Lane, said the district should create special-admission schools for students with good behavior. It's not fair that their education is hindered by constantly disruptive students, she said.

"Disorder hurts all the other kids who are there," said Gradwell, who emphasized that student behavior and morale are better at Ellwood than they were at her previous school, Pennell.

Sexual violence

Violence sometimes takes on sexual overtones, which teachers must handle, but often don't anticipate.

For student victims, such assaults can go beyond physical injury and become psychologically devastating. What happened to Aisha Coltrane's daughter is a case in point.

A classmate grabbed the girl, then 10, and forced her head down to his groin while the two were on the playground at Richmond Elementary in Port Richmond.

An internal School District police report from Dec. 12, 2007, coded it as a morals offense/indecent assault. Coltrane was unhappy with the punishment the school meted out.

"He was only suspended for one day and the next day he was back in school," she said of the offending student.

The boy was even allowed to stay in her daughter's class, Coltrane said, adding: "He still was messing with her in the schoolyard."

The taunting took a toll.

"It made her an angrier person," Coltrane said of her daughter, who is now 13.

Six years ago, in an effort to deal with sexually oriented attacks by young children, the district hired the Philadelphia-based Joseph J. Peters Institute, which counsels victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. The institute screens district students 10 and under.

Most cases involve touching or attempting to touch another student, said Thomas F. Haworth, director of the child and adolescent programs at the institute.

Young children who commit violent sexual acts sometimes have been abused themselves, or have been exposed to the acts either through the media or in their homes or neighborhoods, experts say.

The children are acting out what they've seen, and therefore a therapeutic rather than disciplinary approach is needed, they say.

"In children who are prepubescent, for them to demonstrate advanced knowledge of sexual behavior, to exhibit adultlike sexual behavior, is pretty much an earmark that they've had some exposure or contact of a sexual nature," Haworth said.

The institute screens about 60 children a year, which he acknowledged is only a portion of the district's cases. Screenings are conducted only with parental permission, and some parents find the prospect too intrusive, Wright said.

The screenings seek to determine how the sexual exposure occurred, Haworth said. It's rarely through abuse by an adult or older child - a category that accounts for only 5 percent of the cases, he said.

School personnel are advised to closely monitor the children, by keeping them in sight and having them go to the bathroom independently or under supervision.

"We can't be freaked out by the behavior," he said. "We have to manage it like we manage other behaviors."

Developing coping skills

At the elementary level, support and coping skills are what violent students most need, experts say.

"Punishment's not the answer," said Paul Fink, a psychiatrist who has worked with the district. "You need to ask what happened. Talk to the child."

Schools, too, particularly in urban and poor areas, must recognize that many students suffer from post-traumatic stress because they have been exposed to violence.

"If you keep those feelings in, eventually the child is going to explode. That's what the school sees. That's what the neighborhood sees," said Judith Cohen, medical director at the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh and a professor of psychiatry at Drexel.

Children feel they can release their anger in school because it's a safe place, unlike the neighborhoods where many of them live, Cohen said.

She cited the case of a first grader in Pittsburgh public schools who hit her teacher. The child had been raped repeatedly by a male in the home since she was a toddler.

Only genuinely violent youngsters should be removed from the classroom, said Myrna Shure, a professor of psychology at Drexel. Too often, schools target highly disruptive students as well, she said.

But schools can't do it all, said Williams, of Drexel's violence prevention center.

"Parents are not doing what they need to do to prepare these kids, to manage their behavior, to manage expectations," he said. "Far too many parents have completely abdicated their responsibilities as parents."

Struggling with anger

Tabitha Allen admits she wasn't on top of her children's lives the way she should have been, especially after her grandmother got sick and an aunt died.

"I took my mind off my kids," Allen said.

Allen, a high school dropout and unemployed, had all five of her children before she was 25. Two of her teenagers she describes as "Bonnie and Clyde."

"They don't know how to walk away from stuff. They don't know how to let stuff go," she said.

Her youngest, the 10-year-old who assaulted the teacher, takes after them, she said.

So it was no surprise to her when she learned he had hit his teacher.

Earlier, the teacher had intervened when the boy hit a classmate. That led to a fist fight in the hall between the boy and the teacher, she said.

Her son had been suspended repeatedly for fighting, she said. This time, he faced legal charges and landed on probation. Kenderton kicked him out and sent him to a disciplinary classroom at a K-6 school in Logan, about a mile and a half from his house.

The classroom is run by Abraxas. This year, there are 10 such sites based at elementary schools and serving 240 children in grades three to eight, said Wright, of the discipline office.

Each self-contained classroom is staffed by a teacher and a behavior specialist. Students are evaluated after 30 days to determine if they can return to a regular school. In addition to academics, the students receive counseling and character-building courses.

Allen said the school is too strict. When her son enters the school, he is patted down for weapons, she said. His classroom is in the basement, she said, and he is not allowed out for recess.

"He ain't no convict. This isn't jail," she complained.

Allen also said she was at a loss about how to help her son, who has ADHD and sees a psychiatrist.

She did her best to discipline her children, she said, and learned how to "beat them at their own game."

When her son missed her imposed 10 p.m. curfew, she made him sit outside until 2 a.m. - in the cold.

When her 13-year-old was locked up for trying to steal sneakers, she let him sit in jail for a while. She did the same to her 16-year-old daughter after she got into a fight and was detained.

And when her 15-year-old son said he was going to kill himself, she hung a rope and told him how best to do it.

"I said, 'It depends on how you jump,' " she said. "You got to jump right."

Allen struggles with her own anger. She said it comes from "life. Period. Me growing up in a neighborhood like this, seeing all the drugs."

She pointed to her front door.

"I got a whole hooker row right here on the corner," she said.

Allen lives on North 10th Street, near a Police Athletic League building - an oasis where her 10-year-old plays basketball and football.

On a recent visit, Allen showed off a remodeled kitchen, new floor, and two couches still wrapped in plastic.

She said the next phase would include a remodeling of her 10-year-old son's bedroom, which on an earlier visit had one poster of a pop band on the wall - a legacy of his sister - a crumpled air mattress patched with duct tape, and a television cart with a small TV and video game console.

Although things appear to be improving at home, one thing stayed the same.

The boy said that if he could change anything about his life, he would pick a different school.