At Washington High, a teacher's beating is the final straw

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Students leave George Washington High School amid a heavy police presence on Tuesday after a teacher was attacked there Monday.

A brutal assault on a teacher at George Washington High School led to the removal Tuesday of the troubled school's principal, Philadelphia School District officials confirmed.

Hoping to quiet a culture of violent incidents, district officials reassigned Gene Jones a day after the attack, which occurred during third period Monday morning, midway through a ninth-grade biology lesson.

The classroom door - usually locked against intruders - was open, allowing a handful of students to walk paperwork across the hallway, according to someone with firsthand knowledge of the incident.

The source gave this account:

A female student came running back into Room 402, shouting for help. Someone was after her. They were shouting about getting a cellphone back.

Three male students who didn't belong in the room barreled in, just a few steps behind. The teacher shut his door as fast as he could, but one intruder slipped in.

The teacher warned him to stop, picking up the classroom phone to call police. The male student, who had dumped out the young woman's purse, ripped the phone from the wall.

The intruder allegedly hit the teacher, who wrestled him to the ground.

Then the two other male students - burly teens - burst into the room. They pinned the teacher's arms, allowing the first student to continue pummeling the man.

"It was a beating," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The teacher, who is strong and was able to defend himself, was ultimately transported to Aria Health-Torresdale. He suffered a concussion, severe bruising, and a badly swollen face.

All three students were arrested and charged with aggravated assault. They face a district disciplinary hearing and possible expulsion.

Students and teachers in the school say Washington - once one of the city's strongest neighborhood high schools - has become unsafe, with students openly wandering hallways, cutting class, and smoking, often with no repercussions.

District data show that reported assaults are up only slightly at the school over last year - eight to date, up from six by this point in 2014. But crime is down in other categories.

Adults inside the school say incidents have gone unreported. Fire alarms are often pulled, one teacher said, and often as students and staff pour from classrooms into crowded hallways, "a kid will just sucker-punch you, and you don't know who did it, and it never gets recorded."

The school has security cameras, officials say, but many are broken.

Jones, who was in his third year at Washington, will remain a district employee, shifting to the district's central headquarters. His replacements, a team of retired veteran principals, were at the school Tuesday.

In an email to staff, Jones said that he had been "temporarily reassigned" from the school on Bustleton Avenue in the Northeast.

Fernando Gallard, district spokesman, said the Monday assault precipitated the change.

"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 has seen its enrollment rise to nearly 1,800. That has been a source of some tension.

Dion Betts, the assistant superintendent responsible for Washington, said the school lacked basic systems to deal with such an influx.

"It became a little loose," Betts said before 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. About a year ago, Betts said, its Home and School Association became inactive.

Betts said that 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, 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 standing outside the school last week when he was assaulted. Mike Bush, Tahmas'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."

Tahmas is still out of school, on doctor's orders. And he won't go back to Washington, Bush said.

Megan Magee loved Washington in her freshman and sophomore years. Last year, when she was a junior, conditions worsened, she said, but it was nothing like this year.

"There were fights every day," said Magee, 17. "I've never seen anything like that. I wasn't learning anything. They would pull the fire alarm every day for the first two months of school."

Last month, Magee was eating lunch in the cafeteria when a large fight broke out. "We were all scared," she said. "There was glass and blood everywhere."

On social media, Magee sounded the alarm about the chaos at Washington. Community meetings followed. Outrage spread.

When she returned to school after an illness, Magee felt more scared. "Four or five people threatened me," she said. "They said, 'You've got to watch out, because you're going to get jumped.' "

Magee hasn't been back to school. She, too, is awaiting a transfer.

kgraham@phillynews.com

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