Amid a school culture where fights, assaults and arrests had become the norm, Philadelphia School District officials have removed the principal of Washington High.
The decision was made Monday night, The Inquirer has learned, after three students burst into a ninth grade classroom where they did not belong, attempting to seize a cell phone from a teen in the room and assaulting the teacher in the process. The students were arrested and charged with aggravated assault; the teacher suffered a concussion and other injuries.
Students and teachers inside the school say that Washington - once one of the city’s strongest neighborhood high schools - had become unsafe, with students openly wandering hallways, cutting class, smoking, often with no repercussions.
Principal Gene Jones, who was in his third year at Washington, will remain a district employee, shifting to the district’s central headquarters. His replacement was at the school on Bustleton Avenue in the Northeast on Tuesday.
In an email to staff, Jones said that he had been "temporarily reassigned."
Fernando Gallard, Philadelphia School District spokesman, confirmed the ouster Tuesday.
"Given the number of school safety incidents at Washington High School, the School District believes that the reassignment of the principal is necessary in order to quickly reset the school culture and expectations," Gallard said.
After absorbing more than 200 new students this fall as part of a district-wide plan to open up more opportunities for students around the city, Washington’s enrollment rose to nearly 1,800. That has been a source of some tension.
Dion Betts, the assistant superintendent responsible for Washington, said the school lacked the basic systems to deal with such an influx.
“It became a little loose,” Betts said in an interview prior to Jones’ removal. “The process of tightening up should have begun prior to the school year.”
He said relationships at the school had also suffered. Washington no longer has a formal parent group; its Home and School Association became inactive about a year ago.
Betts said the school had received some new support staff, and that a climate manager was on the way. Jones, before the removal, had both a mentor principal and a formal assessment by a safety expert. Other measures are in the works, as well, including training by the U.S. Department of Justice and involvement by the city's Human Relations Commission.
But it became clear that the efforts to date have not been enough.
Washington freshman Sunnie Tahmas was assaulted standing outside Washington last week. Mike Bush, Sunnie’s father, said the 14-year-old was pummeled by students he’d never met. The teen needed stitches above his eye; his teeth no longer line up when he closes his jaw.
“It was just a senseless attack,” Bush said. “Sunnie was coming home and telling us about all this violence, and all of a sudden, it was him. You think you’re sending your kid to school and they’re going to be safe, but maybe they’re not.”