Eleven West Philadelphia High students were arrested Tuesday after a series of fights - a sign of what some teachers say is a troubled, disorganized school.
Two major conflicts prompted the arrests. In the morning, police were summoned to break up a fight between two girls; as officers were removing students, they found marijuana in one of the young women's bags.
The larger fight happened about noon in a second-floor hallway. Nine students - eight boys and a girl - were arrested. One of the nine was also charged with assaulting a staffer, the school's parent ombudsman.
All of the students, who were charged as juveniles, also were suspended. Eight students face disorderly conduct charges, one faces assault charges, one faces charges of making threats, and one faces marijuana-possession charges.
West teachers say the larger melee followed a series of dustups between ninth graders that started earlier in the day, but Philadelphia School District officials say they have no record of those.
No injuries were reported. Principal Ozzie Wright said that he did not know what sparked the trouble, but that he suspected it was rooted in problems from the neighborhood.
The arrests, Wright said in an interview, "send a clear-cut message that we're not going to tolerate this kind of thing."
Wright said the trouble was "totally unusual. I think the year has started off good, and I still think it's going very well."
Still, there have been other problems. Last month, West students who gathered outside a charter school at 5501 Cedar Ave. started trouble with students from that school, Boys Latin of Philadelphia, according to its chief executive, David Hardy.
One day, some West students blocked the pavement, causing a fight. After school, West students came to taunt the Boys Latin football team, Hardy said.
"It's a bunch of guys who want to show they run the neighborhood," said Hardy.
Hardy said Wright has been responsive, coming to Boys Latin to check out the situation.
Wright said he had tried to address the situation and had not heard of any trouble in the last week or so.
Four years ago, West was in crisis, with a series of fights and fires. Saliyah Cruz was brought in as principal to calm the climate, and over three school years, Cruz and a stable teaching staff did just that.
But Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was not satisfied with the school's low academic performance, and she removed Cruz from West this summer, replacing her with Wright, a veteran district fixer.
Even Wright's leadership has not been enough to steady the school, which has been "disorganized" since the beginning of the school year, according to one veteran teacher.
Until Monday, Wright had a coprincipal, LaVerne Wiley. Wiley, another district troubleshooter, was reassigned to a troubled elementary school in North Philadelphia. Wiley, who mainly handled academics, has not been replaced, and Wright said he did not yet know who would take over her responsibilities.
A third principal, Lois Powell-Mondesire, spends part of her time at West, too. Some teachers say there is confusion about who is in charge.
There are also many new teachers in the building. Plus, the school's ninth graders are on their third schedule of the school year, leading to confusion among staff and students.
"One of the predominant issues with climate has been an inability to create relationships with the kids," the veteran teacher said. "The disorganization, combined with the high percentage of staff turnover, is just a recipe for disaster."
West just came off the state's list of "Persistently Dangerous" schools under federal No Child Left Behind legislation, but some worry that won't last.
"I feel like if numbers are being accurately reported, we'll be right back on the Persistently Dangerous list," another teacher said.
Wright said he disagreed with the characterization of the school as disorganized and dangerous.
"I know we've had incidents, but they've been isolated," Wright said.
He said he would call a meeting with staff to go over policies, so "we can address issues right away." Parents have begun helping out at the school, and later in the month there will be a community meeting to help build relationships, Wright said.
"We've been going out to the neighborhood, finding out what's going on after dark," he said. "Had we some more information on this, we could have nipped it in the bud."