INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

While Jack Wagner, Pennsylvania's auditor general, sees "a new day" in the Philadelphia School District's approach to school safety, he won't know for sure until the state completes its audit this year.

Wagner said "there is no doubt there's been a problem in the past" with Philadelphia's school-safety record.

"I was impressed with what I heard today . . . and the hands-on approach a couple principals are taking," he said yesterday after meeting with district officials.

He acknowledged the public perception that Philadelphia schools are unsafe. Based on incident reports, 20 of the district's schools are deemed "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"Things are getting better," Michael Masch, the district's chief business officer, said after a meeting with Wagner and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. "They are not good enough yet, but we are very encouraged."

Masch said violent incidents had fallen in 17 of the 20 "persistently dangerous" schools.

Wagner, whose office has put a focus on school-safety audits statewide, toured two of the district's most dangerous schools, Martin Luther King High School and Germantown High School.

Afterward, Wagner said his office checked for strong relationships with local law enforcement, single entry points into buildings, and visitor procedures. Schools with a high number of incidents may need metal detectors and video surveillance, he said.

The district spends $45 million on school police and climate managers and another $45 million on alternative-education programs for problem students.

"Schools don't have a bubble around them," Masch said. "They are part of the community they serve."

Wagner also met with state-appointed Safe Schools Advocate Jack Stollsteimer, a sometime critic of the district's safety record,

"I applaud him," Stollsteimer said. "The district needs people looking over its shoulder and being critical."

In a December audit, the auditor general criticized the state Department of Education for not emphasizing safety and failing to ensure that schools statewide followed protocol for reporting crime.

Wagner also proposed that the state's Office of Safe Schools be elevated within the Department of Education.

"Children cannot learn if they don't feel safe," he said in explaining his decision to make school safety a priority.

Focus on school safety intensified after the 2006 killings of Amish students at a schoolhouse in Lancaster County. After the shootings, Wagner's office surveyed superintendents statewide, and they "overwhelmingly" responded that they were "looking for guidance" on how to make their schools safer.

More than 70 districts have been audited in the last 18 months of Wagner's safe-schools initiative.

Contact staff writer Traver Riggins at 215-854-5626 or riggint@phillynews.com.