A member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission has come under fire for yelling at student protesters who disrupted a parent movie night held Wednesday at school district headquarters.
Ruby Anderson, a senior at Science Leadership Academy, and two other people in attendance said Commissioner Sylvia Simms asked students what schools they attend and then told them: "You all probably go to failing schools."
"I thought it was pretty inappropriate for a public official to yell at people she's supposed to be representing," said Anderson, who was among about 20 students staging the sit-in. "I also thought it was really inappropriate for her to assert that the school we went to, if it were failing, meant we had no right to dissent."
In a telephone interview, Simms said she raised her voice to the students because they were chanting loudly and she wanted to communicate. Simms, 53, a North Philadelphia grandmother, parent organizer and mayoral appointee, said she asked them what schools they attended and talked about failing schools.
She denied stating that the students probably attend failing schools.
"It wasn't like that," she said. "I've noticed we have a lot of failing schools. It's my job to try to fix as many schools as I can."
She said she couldn't remember exactly what she said.
But Simms acknowledged that she was annoyed that the students disrupted the event, held in honor of parent appreciation month and sponsored by the Women's Christian Alliance. The group of about 30 parents was there to watch and then discuss the movie "Won't Back Down," which is about parents who become frustrated with the public school system and the teachers union and try to start their own school.
"I thought that what they did was really inappropriate," said Jay Cohen, a parent who was there to watch. "It's very important for students to have a voice and exercise that voice in a Democratic society, but what they were doing is preventing other people from getting information."
But the students, members of the Philadelphia Student Union, objected to the decision to show the movie, which they see as anti-union and pro-charter, a week after the district canceled its teachers contract.
"They thought it was a manipulative ploy," said Hiram Rivera, executive director of the student union.
Students were chanting "Philly is a union town" and "hey, hey, ho, ho, the SRC has got to go."
When police showed up, students left the building and no arrests were made.
The incident prompted a frenzy on Twitter, with some calling for Simms' resignation.
Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer, said the incident only shows how tensions have flared as the school district takes steps to deal with lack of adequate state funding.
"Everybody is stretched to such extremes given the underfunding of our schools that unfortunately these tensions start to play out even among people who are on the same side of the issue," she said, "the issue being we need more funding in our schools."