School watchdog has to growl
By Jack Stollsteimer In the midst of the still-evolving scandal at Penn State, Gov. Corbett has at last appointed a safe-schools advocate for the Philadelphia School District. Vacant since August 2009, the advocate's office has the task of combating the same culture of indifference to victims of violence that seems to have afflicted the leadership of our flagship state university.
By Jack Stollsteimer
In the midst of the still-evolving scandal at Penn State, Gov. Corbett has at last appointed a safe-schools advocate for the Philadelphia School District. Vacant since August 2009, the advocate's office has the task of combating the same culture of indifference to victims of violence that seems to have afflicted the leadership of our flagship state university.
The reestablishment of the office through the appointment of former prosecutor Kelley Hodge was aided in no small part by the Inquirer investigative series "Assault on Learning." The series provided proof that the alarming level of violence in city schools directly diminishes the quality of the education delivered to their students. The articles mirrored the findings of the state Select Subcommittee to Investigate School Violence in Philadelphia back in 2000. It was that committee's groundbreaking work that led to the establishment of the Office of the Safe Schools Advocate in 2001.
Unfortunately, the advocate cannot deal with school violence directly. She has no role in district operations and is not a "school safety czar." What she does have is a voice. The advocate's role is best understood as that of an independent state watchdog, with the responsibility to report honestly on the district's compliance with laws and policies designed to make schools safer.
But a watchdog can be effective only if she is willing to bite. Both of the previous safe-schools advocates, Harvey Rice and I, were willing to speak out about the district's repeated failure to fulfill its legal duties to accurately report school crimes, punish offenders, and protect the rights of victims.
A watchdog also has to have thick skin. Both Rice and I were attacked by district leaders and state education officials for our reports and findings. But we found consolation in the vindication of our efforts by the truth, as well as in the quiet thanks of the parents and children we helped feel safe in their schools.
That School District officials have attacked the work of the safe schools advocate may seem absurd. Unfortunately, though, public education today is an expensive, closed bureaucracy that is under attack by pundits and politicians who are often long on critique but short on answers and classroom experience. Education officials across the country - from state secretaries down through district superintendents and school principals - have responded by downplaying and covering up school crime. To understand the extent of this conspiracy of silence, you need look no further than the very top: When he led Chicago's public schools, now-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (like many other big-city superintendents) never reported a single city school as persistently dangerous, even though it was an open secret that gang violence ran rampant in some of them.
The need for public officials dedicated to telling the truth about school violence and offering solutions to it has never been greater in Philadelphia or the rest of the country. Fortunately, the new safe-schools advocate's training as a juvenile-court prosecutor and her personal skills make her by all accounts well equipped to face the challenges of this important job. I wish her well, I hope she speaks truth to power, and I trust she will find the satisfaction I did in working to make a difference in the lives of the young people in our city's schools.