Report finds safety flaws, promises fixes in Philly SD

UPDATE, 4:40 p.m.

The full text of the report can now be found at the district's website.


The facts are sobering, but not surprising - the Philadelphia School District has failed to report crime consistently, offers too little counseling for kids traumatized by violence, and fails to replicate best practices citywide. The promises are lofty - more focus on violence prevention, more transparency around violence data, better reporting, a modified zero tolerance policy.

More than a year after a Blue Ribbon Commission on school safety was convened by Mayor Nutter and then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, its work is scheduled to be made public with the expected release of a report tonight. The Inquirer has obtained a draft copy.

The district has already begun implementing some of the report's recommendations, including establishing a new protocol for reporting serious incidents and crime.

The main findings of the report were all laid out in "Assault on Learning," an Inquirer investigative series that found violence was widespread and underreported, and that reporting standards varied widely from school to school.  some cases in which students were seriously injured have been coded "fights" or "disorderly conducts" and not counted in the district's serious incident tally of 30,000 over five years.  

On any given day, the series found, 25 students, teachers or other staffers were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted or became victims of other violent crimes.

"No one will know our schools are getting safer unless they can trust the data we collect and report is valid and consistent, and that there is no 'down-coding' or under-reporting in an attempt to make a school look safer than it is," Mayor Nutter and acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery II wrote in the report's opening section.  "We need to reverse the current incentives so that people are not punished for being honest, and if our data has no credibility, our actions will have no legitimacy."

Among the changes recommended and already implemented in city schools: school police are now charged with reporting crimes to city police.  They're also charged with making all serious-incident reports and filing them with the district's central office.  Prior to the shift, principals had discretion over whether police were called.  The district has also made monthly school-by-school violence data publicly available on its website for the first time. 

The report identifies six "best practices" sites, schools where district officials believe safety is handled in a proactive way with good results.  They are: Cayuga Elementary, Tilden Middle, Furness High, Vaux Promise Academy, A.B. Day Elementary and Mastery Charter-Shoemaker Campus.  It says those will become models for others.

It also says that programs that focus on violence prevention - such as Positive Behavior Supports, Restorative Practices, Peer Mediation - will be spread.  The report says organizations with proven track records of success will be asked to help provide prevention services.  It's not clear how that would happen, though, with the district in a fiscal crisis.  

Another problem - "schools do not have adequate theraputic counseling, treatment and social support services for students and families" - seems tough to fix in a budget crisis.  The report recommends establishing support groups for victims and offenders; it also calls for "additional education and social supports to meet student needs." 

Last year, the district identified 46 schools where safety was most an issue.  It focused a lot of central office attention on the schools, and said that as a group, violent incidents dropped 18 percent in the so-called Focus 46 schools, many of which are considered "persistently dangerous" by the state.  

The report, expected to be released at a 6 p.m. School Reform Commission meeting on safety and public engagement tonight, is virtually identical to an early draft obtained by the Inquirer in September.  Officials at the time said that draft was not final.  Since then, the SRC has been almost completely reconstituted.  

 I'll be Tweeting the meeting, which is a new format for the SRC. Every third Monday, "strategy, policy and priority" meetings will be held.  There will be short presentations and a roundtable discussion; those who wish to speak won't be required to register, as they do at regular, voting SRC meetings (which are shifting to Thursdays at 5:30, starting this Thursday.)

Tonight's meeting is on "Safety and Community Engagement," and will be chaired by Commissioner Lorene Cary.  Subsequent meetings will be held on "Choice, Turnaround and Rightsizing," (chaired by Joseph Dworetzky) "Finance and Audit," (chaired by Feather Houstoun) and "Post Secondary Education, Transitions and Success," chaired by Wendell Pritchett.

On the safety report and proposed fixes: what do you think?  How can the district better address the problem it lays out?  What are some real-world solutions that can work, even given the district's money woes?

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