As teachers in the School District of Philadelphia, we have seen our share of clashes between students who come from very different backgrounds. However, given that the victims of the recent racially charged attacks at South Philadelphia High School say adults "let them down" by dismissing their fears and not reacting swiftly enough, we must ask ourselves what could have been done differently to prevent this type of conflict. Our response as a district will show what our values are.
If we want these students and their peers to be able to attend a safe school, then we must get to the heart of what true school safety looks like.
Part of school safety is holding people accountable for violent acts, and the district is taking steps toward doing so. However, relying solely on punitive interventions - such as enhanced policing, suspensions, and arrests - only serves to further criminalize students and entrench violent behavior. It doesn't resolve the fundamental issues underlying the conflict.
We believe we are responsible for our students' development, and we must do our jobs. We must actively intervene by teaching them to manage conflict and by providing a path toward individual transformation and community healing.
We would like to see the school district establish restorative justice practices to move toward healing in this specific situation - to get students and faculty at South Philadelphia High talking about race and ethnicity, exploring differences, and finding points of convergence.
We would also like to see the district commit resources to have professional conflict mediation and prevention programs at South Philadelphia High, like the programs offered by the International Institute for Restorative Practices, which are being employed at West Philadelphia High School. This would mean school-wide training, flexibility in the schedule for community discussions, and a curriculum for meaningful multicultural understanding.
Ultimately, these practices should be instituted in every school in the district. We cannot afford to let this be just another story about the failings of some of Philadelphia's toughest schools. This is a critical opportunity for the district to help the principal, teachers, staff, and students move toward a school climate that is safe for everyone.
If we respond the right way, we will be able to say that this is when we began to make meaningful change and prevent violence in every school in the city.