Teacher attack spells out discipline report's point

About the same time Thursday afternoon that a consultant's report was released saying Philadelphia public schools are rife with disciplinary failures, a long-term substitute teacher was trying to fend off an attack by an eighth-grade girl at a school in West Kensington.

"You can't turn your back for a minute," said Joseph H. Smith III, 53, who was hit above an eye with a phone, clobbered with a dictionary, and choked before he toppled to the classroom floor, where two other girls joined in pummeling him.

Smith's account of an assault inside his classroom at Julia de Burgos School, at Fourth Street and Lehigh Avenue, came amid growing concern about discipline and safety problems in city schools following a Feb. 23 attack that left a math teacher at Germantown High School with a broken neck.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been pressing for improved discipline in the schools for years, but union leaders said yesterday the assault on Frank Burd at Germantown had made safety the union's priority.

"It moves to the top of our agenda," said Jerry Jordan, union vice president. "As a teacher, you cannot teach kids in an unsafe environment, and you can't have children learning when they don't feel safe."

Ted Kirsch, president of the union that represents 18,000 teachers and other employees, said the union was considering asking to have legislation introduced in Harrisburg to make it easier to remove violent students. The union also may seek stiffer penalties for administrators who try to skirt state law by underreporting serious incidents.

"It is one of the alternatives we are looking at as a follow-up, because the school district is not doing all that it should be doing," Kirsch said.

Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive, said he supported changing state law to let the district permanently expel violent students from the regular student population and send them to disciplinary schools for the remainder of their education. Now, students in disciplinary schools have a right to return to neighborhood schools after 180 days.

Vallas said about half the district's 270 schools handle discipline properly, while it's a "a challenge" at the rest.

"We know we have a problem," Vallas said. "We have a lot of kids with a lot of problems, and we don't have a lot of resources."

He said 28 violent students had been expelled recently from the 1,500-student Germantown High and the number would increase to 64 on Monday.

At the time Burd was injured, Vallas said, "there were at least two dozen expulsions being processed" at the school.

A spokeswoman for Albert Einstein Medical Center said Burd, 60, was out of the intensive care unit and in stable condition yesterday.

Meanwhile, Smith, who had been teaching eighth-grade science and history at de Burgos since early November, said he was attacked Thursday afternoon when he told a student to stop making crank calls from the classroom phone.

It was 2:50 p.m., and students were getting their coats and preparing for dismissal when the eighth grader was making calls.

When Smith told her to get off the phone, he said, she whacked him across his left eye with the receiver.

As he attempted to restrain the girl and hang up the phone, Smith said, she grabbed his tie and choked him. As he struggled to break free, she grabbed a dictionary and hit him in the back of the head.

Smith said that as he was starting to pass out, three other girls jumped on him. Security officers and other teachers arrived and pulled off the students.

Felecia D. Ward, a school district spokeswoman, said the 15-year-old student who assaulted Smith had been suspended, pending a formal hearing for disciplinary expulsion.

Ward said the incident report filed with the district did not mention other students' being involved in the attack.

Although Smith filed a police report, police said last night that the girl had not been arrested. Smith sought treatment for a head injury at the emergency room at Temple University Hospital Thursday night. Aafter waiting many hours without being seen, he said, he went home. Early yesterday evening, he was being examined at Roxborough Hospital.

Smith said he did not intend to return to de Burgos. "This is the third time I've been attacked," he said.

Jacqueline Barnett, Philadelphia's secretary of education, said yesterday that in light of the consultant's report, a meeting she had scheduled for Tuesday took on new urgency. Expected to attend: Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson; James B. Golden Jr., the district's chief safety executive; safe-school advocates, and others with a stake in the 173,000-pupil district.

"We have a climate in which young people have lost respect for the adults in their lives. It is unfortunate and unacceptable that any teacher's sense of safety would be threatened when they cross the school threshold to educate students," Barnett said.

Greg Wade, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, said he fields at least a few phone calls a month from parents worried about discipline.

Some of them are angry over the lack of district response after children are attacked. Others have said the system enforces discipline problems unevenly.

But, he said, he has been in a number of district schools where discipline was handled well.

"Even if there are problems in just one school, that's not acceptable. We need to get a system-wide discipline plan in place," Wade said.

Wade believes a discipline czar would help, but with a looming budget crisis - the district's deficit for 2007-08 is estimated at $176 million - he is worried that job could be pointless if there are not more security officers in schools.

To read the complete report by consultant Ellen Green-Ceisler on the student disciplinary system in the Philadelphia School District and the district's response, go to http://go.philly.com/


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or at martha.woodall@phillynews.com