Another school-violence crisis is unfolding in Philadelphia's public schools. Asian American students at South Philadelphia High School felt they had to boycott classes to bring attention to a reign of terror by violent kids and an indifferent staff. State officials, who run the district in a "reform partnership" with city leaders, have responded with a deafening silence.
When the state Department of Education closed Philadelphia's Office of the Safe Schools Advocate last summer for supposed want of chump change in its multibillion-dollar budget, officials said the city's school-violence victims need not worry: Unnamed Harrisburg bureaucrats would protect them. A more hollow promise was never made.
Last year, state Auditor General Jack Wagner confirmed that the department had violated state law since 1995 by failing to establish a safe-schools office to gather violence data from all 501 of the state's school districts and to address safety issues. Instead, the department has reported false data to the public for years. For example, the Philadelphia School District habitually and significantly underreported school violence until 2005, when investigations by The Inquirer and the safe-schools advocate revealed the truth.
In this latest crisis, the Philadelphia School District is resorting to its usual obfuscation and spin. First, district representatives denied there was a problem. Amazingly, they told the public that violent incidents at the high school had dropped a staggering 55 percent this year, when in fact they had increased 5 percent. This gap between what's happening and the administration's knowledge is truly disturbing.
Then the district promised that - now that kids were boycotting school and television cameras were present - it would investigate the attacks on Asian American students, which have been going on throughout the district for several years.
The district also promised to move to expel kids identified in an investigation. But no one explained to the public that, because the district has cut the number of alternative-education slots, the expelled students will be back at South Philadelphia High in six months - and that's if the district's dysfunctional discipline system actually expels them in the first place.
Whenever I, as the last safe-schools advocate, tried to remedy the district's failure to make its schools safe by holding offenders accountable and assisting victims, I ran into a brick wall of resistance from my overseers at the state Department of Education. Department officials are enablers of the district's dysfunction on issues of discipline and safety.
Some well-intentioned reformers in Harrisburg recently announced an "unprecedented" effort to make the state's schools safer. The linchpin of their efforts is a laughable piece of legislation that simply restates the current Safe Schools Act, which the Education Department has consistently violated for 14 years. Meanwhile, the legislature just finished eliminating funding for all the state's safe-schools programs.
We have come to expect incompetence from Harrisburg, but this takes the cake. Everyone wants to stand in front of a television camera and say he's going to make our schools safe. But what's missing in both Philadelphia and Harrisburg is enlightened leadership that understands that safer schools come not from spinning news stories, but from the hard work of actually reforming our schools.