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Former safe-schools advocates see a need for the post, which is still unstaffed

Fed up with violence in the Philadelphia School District, state legislators in 2000 created an independent watchdog to advocate for victims.

Fed up with violence in the Philadelphia School District, state legislators in 2000 created an independent watchdog to advocate for victims.

It was the first position of its kind in the country, and hailed by national school safety experts. Philadelphia's safe-schools advocate worked out of district headquarters but was a state employee who didn't answer to the district.

The job was held first by Harvey Rice, then by Jack Stollsteimer, a former assistant U.S. attorney and often an outspoken critic of the way the district handled violence.

Stollsteimer drew state ire in 2008 when he released a report that called the district's disciplinary system "dysfunctional and unjust" and said the district had violated state law by refusing for a time to expel students who took weapons to school.

Citing budget woes, state officials eliminated the advocate's job in 2009. Former Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak later said Stollsteimer had spent too much time prosecuting the district and not enough time helping victims.

The position remains unfilled.

Stollsteimer worked with current Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman for a year and was initially optimistic about her leadership on safety.

But after an early bright spot - reinstituting expulsions for the district's most violent offenders - Ackerman disappointed, Stollsteimer said.

"Things have gotten worse, not better," he said. "You can't address the problem until you're honest about it, and the district is not honest about it."

Incidents are "vastly underreported," victims' rights are often disregarded, discipline is uneven, and the district too often uses "window dressing" - such as changes in personnel and important-sounding committees - to mask its problems, Stollsteimer said.

But parents who have fled the district in the past decade know the difference, he said.

"The Philadelphia School District is losing customers to charter schools every day. Parents have no idea if these charters are better academically, but they know they're safer," said Stollsteimer, now an attorney for the state Treasury Department.

Rice, now deputy city controller, also questions the district's violence statistics.

Even with a safe-schools advocate, there was underreporting, Rice said. But when the position was staffed, "I believe we had a better picture of the level of violence in the schools, the number of incidents. There was an avenue for people to report. We could check up."

Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner this month called on the state to restore the position and make it independent of the Department of Education.

In an audit released this month, Wagner wrote that a "chronic problem exists within the School District of Philadelphia in terms of violence" and called the job "a vital position especially within this school district."