Numbers down, but school violence still a problem

Philadelphia students marched in a protest against school violence last year. (File Photo / Staff)

A 47 percent decrease in the number of city schools labeled “persistently dangerous” deserves applause. But Philadelphia still has too many schools that are so unsafe their students have a legal right to attend classes elsewhere.

A 14 percent drop in reported violence across the district means there were 4,220 violent incidents in the 2010-11 school year, compared with 4,921 in 2009-10. That’s still a staggering amount of violence. No wonder students are failing and dropping out at alarming rates.

Ten schools, compared with 19 the year before, made the “persistently dangerous” list, which is based on federal guidelines under the No Child Left Behind law. The district attributes the decline to stronger relationships in the schools and the community, and better training of school police.

But skeptics, justifiably, question whether the district has accurately reported every crime. An Inquirer series earlier this year found that violence in the district is often underreported. A blue-ribbon task force on school safety corroborated those findings.

Schools are placed on the dangerous list based on the ratio of violent incidents to enrollment over two years. Reported crimes included attempted murder, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, drug sales, sexual assaults, theft, weapons offenses, and vandalism.

It’s clear that the district needs a new approach to change the culture within schools where students and teachers are at risk of physical harm. Most immediately, the district needs a new safe-schools advocate to independently monitor violence. The post has been vacant since 2009, when the state said it couldn’t fund it.

Better monitoring alone will not stop the violence. But it will provide more accountability and help restore public confidence in the accuracy of violence statistics.

Also needed is better training for school police officers. Toward that end, the district must do better in screening applicants. It was reported this week that a number of officers have criminal records that should have disqualified them from working in a school.

More support groups and counseling for both violence victims and offenders are also needed, as well as more alternative programs for unruly students. Whatever schools such as Roxborough and Overbrook did to get off the dangerous list should be replicated at other schools. Their success means no situation is hopeless, given the right approach.