Crime spiked in Philadelphia schools last year, hitting a record level.
Nearly 15,000 criminal incidents were reported in 2007-08, a 14 percent jump from the previous school year, according to an analysis by Philadelphia's safe schools advocate obtained by The Inquirer.
The number of serious crimes, however, dropped by 7 percent, and district officials say all crime is down by 11 percent so far this school year.
No students were expelled last school year - even those who brought guns to school - and just 31 percent were transferred to alternative education placements.
That's a violation of state law, the report said.
There is a silver lining, according to the document, which was written in February but has not been released.
Under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman this school year, the district has begun taking school crime more seriously and expelling its most violent students. And improved incident reporting means that officials have a better grip on the state of violence inside Philadelphia's 281 public schools, said the state-appointed advocate, Jack Stollsteimer.
Ackerman, Stollsteimer wrote, has "reversed the district leadership's previous indifferent attitude to the rising level of violence within the city's public schools. That indeed is a great achievement, a starting point to making our schools safe havens for learning."
James Golden, the district's security chief, agreed that district discipline is improving.
"I think it owes, in part at least, to the new zero-tolerance policy, the number of expulsions, the stepped-up disciplinary measures that have been taken," Golden said yesterday. "We know that the trend for us is positive."
Overall misbehavior - which includes offenses ranging from weapons possession and fighting to vandalism and disorderly conduct - for last school year was not out of the ordinary, Golden said.
"We certainly want to reduce the level of violent incidents that we see; however, the numbers that we're talking about are within the normal range of incident data that we've seen in the past four or five years," he said.
So far this school year, the School Reform Commission has voted on 33 expulsions, mostly for aggravated assaults on teachers, administrators and students, said Ben Wright, the district's head of alternative education. In all, 12 students were permanently expelled, 13 students were temporarily expelled, and eight students were not expelled.
More than 100 cases are in the pipeline, Wright said.
Before this school year, no student had been removed from the system for three years. Stollsteimer had long criticized the district's prior stance against expulsion as illegal and harmful to student safety, a position that earned him the wrath of some state and district officials.
Despite the positive trend this school year, Stollsteimer's report paints a different picture of 2007-08. Crime was not always reported to city police, as legally required, he wrote. In all, 41 percent of the most serious cases were not reported to police.
"And from a review of incident reports when cases were reported to police, all too many times police officers refused to take appropriate action, sometimes at the direction of school officials," Stollsteimer wrote.
Golden said that school administrators and city police make joint decisions about whether arrests are warranted. Two middle-schoolers who get into a simple fistfight, for instance, should not be arrested, he said.
Often, the report said, the most serious offenders - including those who assaulted teachers - were neither expelled nor transferred to alternative education. Just 24 percent of the 1,728 students who assaulted teachers were removed from regular education classrooms, and only 30 percent of them were charged by police, the report said.
Wright said that under Ackerman, the district has gotten better at investigating each alleged disciplinary infraction. The district now has a wider range of ways to deal with problem students, from suspension to removal to help for students with emotional problems.
"Kids are not just sent to alternative schools," Wright said. "Every alleged incident is investigated, and some are unfounded. The needs of the student are taken into consideration."
Still, he said, the district must keep better records. Unfounded incidents should be removed from that most serious category for state reporting purposes, but sometimes they are not, Wright said.
Stollsteimer also sounded an alarm about safety in elementary and middle schools, concluding that virtually all of the 479 weapons discovered inside elementary and middle schools were found inside classrooms and hallways. Three-quarters of the 357 weapons found at high schools were detected at the front door.
The safe-schools advocate called for metal detectors in all city schools, a position district officials oppose.
Though crime rose overall, in 2007-08 the number of serious crimes committed by students in grades 5 through 12 dropped by 7 percent, to 4,848. And Golden said violent incidents this school year are down 13 percent, and all incidents are down 11 percent.
Even before Ackerman's arrival, there was some movement on school safety, Stollsteimer said. The district acted on several of his earlier recommendations last school year, including creating a superintendent's safety cabinet, reinstating longer suspensions, designating a safety administrator at every school, and streamlining the disciplinary process.
The numbers may look startling, Stollsteimer wrote, but the news is actually good.
"While this number of school crimes is disturbing, policymakers should note that this is in fact a good thing; we simply can't begin to effectively deal with school violence until we know the scope and extent of the problem we face," the report said.
Stollsteimer recommended that the district support its new, tougher stance on discipline with more resources and staff to handle an increased flow of disciplinary paperwork and expand its alternative education slots. He also called on the state to tighten reporting standards, train and certify school police officers, and create an independent, state-level Office of Safe Schools.
Reached yesterday, Stollsteimer said the tide has turned.
"I am pleased to report that under Dr. Ackerman's leadership, the district has committed to complying with the law and addressing the terrible problem of violence in its schools," he said. "The challenge now is to ensure that the commitment is sustained and matched by resources at the school level."