After nearly 150 assaults on Philadelphia school administrators and teachers this school year, the unions that represent them gathered Friday to say: Something’s got to give.
“Some parents now think that it’s OK to assault the people charged with keeping their children safe,” said Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), the Philadelphia School District administrators’ union. “It’s more than a few cases — just this year, it’s horrendous. People are cursed out or threatened, bullied by parents.”
That was the message Cooper and Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, hoped to convey at a news conference and rally Friday to address the issue of staff safety in schools. Flanked by Councilwoman Helen Gym and dozens of administrators, Cooper asked that school security be increased; that legislators revisit the Sandusky Act, which prevents school staff from touching students — even when breaking up a fight; and that adults be criminally charged for assaults on staff.
“We also need programs, services, and more counselors to identify behaviors that a child might be on the wrong path,” Jordan said.
Gym added that reforms need to extend to the entire community. “We’ve got to figure out a way to figure out healing that is going to bring back those families to a sense of community, but make sure that no principal, no teacher, no parent should have to be afraid to go to school,” she said.
Right now, the decision to call police after an assault is made on a case-by-case basis by a principal or other administrator, the dean, or the victim, Cooper said. If police intervene and charges are filed, she said the cases are not always prosecuted and the outcomes aren’t always shared with the school.
During the news conference, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. offered little in the way of solutions. But he told the crowd: “The Constitution is clear on this issue. This is a protected class of individuals who have to be allowed to do their work without fear or retribution, intimidation or assault.”
Over the last couple of decades, violence against school staff has flared, including an incident in 2007 that gained national attention when former Germantown High School teacher Frank Burd fell and broke his neck after being punched by a student. The case prompted the district to establish a teacher-safety hotline and implement more stringent penalties for offenders. But when the Inquirer revisited the issue in its Pulitzer Prize-winning series on school violence four years later, the problem persisted, and the district, once again, vowed to make improvements.
The issue was laid bare again on June 6 at Pollock Elementary in the Northeast, when the parents of a student allegedly pushed and punched the school’s principal and vice principal in the schoolyard while attempting to pick their son up on Family Fun Day. Administrators told them they had to report to the school office to sign the child out before they could leave with him.
The mother, Nicole Myers, 37, was charged with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, criminal trespass, and related offenses. The father, Louis Kennedy, 40, was charged with aggravated assault, criminal trespass, simple assault, and related offenses.
But there were a number of other incidents, said Cooper. At one school, the principal was knocked unconscious by a parent while the school police lieutenant watched, she said. At another, a parent pulled a knife on the principal; at another, a parent threatened to shoot the principal. Cooper declined to specify at which schools these incidents occurred.
And last year, the principal of Fitler Academics Plus School in Germantown was struck with a brick when he was trying to break up a fight at dismissal. The police were called in each incident, but Cooper said she wasn’t aware of the outcomes of the cases.
The number of assaults on teachers and administrators have exceeded 100 in each of the last three years, according to numbers provided by the district. For the 2017-18 school year, there were 123 assaults on teachers and 25 on administrators; in 2016-17, there were 119 assaults on teachers and 16 on administrators; and in 2015-16, there were 130 attacks on teachers and 20 on administrators. It’s unclear if police were called in all cases, but schools routinely notify the district when a serious incident has occurred, a district spokesperson said.
“To be so brazen as to fight, to just punch a staff member — enough is enough,” said Cooper.
Teachers and principals work hard to cultivate welcoming schools, Cooper said, but it’s tough to do so when they fear for their safety.
“We know and accept that parents are our partners, and we want to have inviting schools, but there have to be guidelines about behavior when entering a school building,” she said.
Cooper, who was the longtime principal of Longstreth Elementary in Kingsessing, said that in her nearly two decades as a principal, it gradually became more common for administrators to worry about being attacked.
“It’s a small percentage of parents, but those can take up most of your time in a school building,” said Cooper. “I would have to mediate parents fighting other parents. Now, it’s a spillover — if some parents don’t agree with the decision of an administrator, they think it’s OK to physically confront them.”
The answer, Cooper said, is strengthening security in schools, improving resources for students suffering from the impact of trauma, and enhancing district policies.