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Reported violence down in city schools; none on 'danger' list

Reported violence is down in city schools, and, for the first time since such records have been kept, none landed on the state's "persistently dangerous" list.

Philadelphia School District. (Bob Laramie / Staff Photographer)
Philadelphia School District. (Bob Laramie / Staff Photographer)Read more

Reported violence is down in city schools, and, for the first time since such records have been kept, none landed on the state's "persistently dangerous" list.

The improvements, based on 2013-14 school-year data, come despite deep staffing cuts over the last several years, which have left fewer adults to monitor classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias.

Philadelphia School District officials reported a 10 percent decline in violent incidents for the 2013-14 school year, to 2,485. The rate of violent incidents remained about the same - 1.83 per 100 students - because the school system shed students.

Five years ago, 25 district schools made the dangerous list, a designation that meant the schools were so unsafe that parents had the option of sending their children elsewhere. Last year, Lincoln and Sayre High Schools made the list; both dropped off this year.

Bartram High, where in March a staffer was struck unconscious by a student and teachers described fights and trouble every day for months, avoided the list. To earn the dangerous designation, schools must have significant violence over two years.

Getting to zero is "an incredible accomplishment," said Rachel Holzman, who heads the district's Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

"We have a lot of people who are working very hard under very challenging conditions to change what it feels like to go to school here," Holzman said. She credited partnerships with community groups and the city's Department of Human Services, and pointed to a focus on addressing students' emotional needs and preventing trouble before it starts.

Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer, hailed the news, praising Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., staff, and families for their work.

But she also said that "as a city, we cannot be satisfied until all children feel safe in our schools." More stable state funding is required, Shorr said.

Violent crime is also down citywide.

It was the fourth straight year reported violence dropped in city schools.

Underreporting has traditionally been a problem in the district. In 2011, The Inquirer's "Assault on Learning" series chronicled widespread school violence and incidents left unrecorded across the city.

But Chief Inspector Carl Holmes, the city police official in charge of district safety, stood by the district's most recent numbers.

The 2013-14 numbers "accurately reflect" violence in the district, Holmes said.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said it seemed odd that so many schools were on the state list a few years ago, and no schools are on the list now. He questioned the methodology used to calculate whether a school is dubbed dangerous.

"The overwhelming majority of our schools are safe for kids," Jordan said, "but the effects of having less adults in buildings to support children will make it much more difficult to maintain order. Buildings do not have the number of adults they need."

Jordan, however, cheered programs such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which focus on preventing violence and are endorsed by the current district administration.

Holmes said his office had zeroed in on problem schools, focused resources there, and identified students most likely to commit offenses.

"We're trying to remove those students that have the most hard-core disciplinary problems, remove them to get services," Holmes said. "We address the top offenders and their backgrounds - we even know what their grades are, how many days they've missed."

Hundreds of school personnel, including school police officers and other support staff, have also been trained in identifying trauma and crisis in students, which has helped quell violence, Holmes said.

Lincoln High was on the state's dangerous list each year that Donald Anticoli has been principal - until now. He said he was "elated" that the school of 1,600 students had lost its negative designation.

How did Lincoln do it? Despite losing some support personnel last year, the school gained a staffer who focused on making the school a better place to learn and work, funded through a grant. The school picked up a peer mediation program, which helped.

"It was a tight team effort," Anticoli said. "Everyone's approach was not just 'See a crime, and arrest.' It was preventative. We greeted students in the morning, developed relationships. When the kids had an issue, they would come to us."

Parents began buying in, Anticoli said. More students started showing up to school in uniform.

"It became a culture change," Anticoli said.