A Flawed System Of Intervention
An effort to help students and limit violence is seen as little more than paper-shuffling.
Rashaan Carr should have been in class at Martin Luther King High School.
Instead, he ended up wading into a crowd of fourth and fifth graders in a bustling elementary school playground, swinging a silver-and-white Louisville Slugger aluminum baseball bat, witnesses said.
Eleven younger boys were hurt.
"This was no nightmare. This was real," one victim said later that day.
The attack last spring was held up as a senseless example of runaway school violence - "Psycho Attack," read one headline.
But behind the melee is a more complicated, subtle, and elusive story, a yearlong Inquirer investigation has found.
It is the story of how a school district in one of the poorest and most violent American cities struggles to help troubled students, and how the district's intervention efforts too often fail.
Since Arlene C. Ackerman took over as Philadelphia school superintendent in 2008, she has made a program called CSAP - Comprehensive Student Assistance Process - the centerpiece of her effort to stave off students' deteriorating grades and behavior. The program is designed to apply a host of resources such as intensive tutoring and counseling, as well as identifying learning disabilities or behavioral disorders.
Use of the program skyrocketed from 16,534 referrals in 2008 to 51,166, including Carr, by the end of the 2009-10 school year. That means that nearly a third of the School District's 155,000 students are enrolled - and the district plans to expand the program even more.
"If used correctly, it's a major intervention that can work," Ackerman said. "I know that because I've seen it work in my own experiences."
But many teachers and administrators say the program is a bust - an exercise in paper-shuffling that is more about documenting students' failures. Judge Kevin Dougherty, the administrative judge of Family Court, said that from what he's seen, CSAP is a "fiction."
On Monday, Dougherty found Carr and two King classmates charged in the attack, Ralph Moore and Diquan Allen, delinquent in a juvenile hearing. He will sentence them next week.
They told Dougherty they were breaking up a fight on the playground, not starting one. As for the bat, they say they had cut school and armed themselves after tussling with a gang at King earlier in the day. Police said the real story was that they were settling scores as part of an obscure neighborhood feud. The judge rejected the boys' story.
The playground assault on April 30, 2010, marked the first time they'd ever been arrested.
But all three had long been in trouble in school. Carr had been suspended 17 times, starting when he was 7, for offenses ranging from fighting to indecent exposure.
All three were enrolled in CSAP at King. The School District declined to discuss their cases, citing privacy concerns, but their court files are open because they were originally charged as adults.
At a hearing this month, Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner pointed out that until the boys landed in court, only teachers and administrators were privy to their misbehavior. He wondered aloud, as he reviewed Carr's "stunningly bad" school record, how the district had let Carr's misconduct escalate from the time he was a young elementary school student.
"It's difficult for me to understand," he said, why Carr's violent misbehavior was "not addressed earlier with something other than just multiple, repeated suspensions."
Later, Lerner said, "It's clear to me that these kids and the community would benefit if the schools took a more proactive role in addressing these kids' needs before they become defendants in serious criminal cases."
Almost a third enrolled
Enrollment in CSAP is no great distinction at King, where 900 of the school's 1,100 students are enrolled in the program.
Kristina Diviny - King's principal until January - said her experience with the program had shown it to be a failure, because so many students are enrolled that it can't possibly help everyone.
"Did 900 kids get the resources?" said Diviny, who left in January to become principal of the high school in Christiana, Del. "There's not 900 kids' worth of resources."
She said the documentation sometimes is "CYA."
"It's almost impossible to really do it the way it needs to be done," she said. "I would say 10 percent . . . is real effective CSAP, because the rest is just a blanket."
She is hardly alone in her assessment. Teachers, students, parents, judges, and other experts agreed.
The Inquirer investigation found that the program is deeply flawed in significant ways:
It sweeps in far too many students for its resources. Students suffering from severe behavioral problems are lumped in with classmates encountering minor academic setbacks - even a grade dropping from an "A" to a "B" can be enough to qualify, said the district's head of counseling, Deborah James Vance. Fifteen years ago, there were only 4,600 students in the program.
It rewards schools for enrolling and providing services to as many students as possible who are eligible for CSAP. For example, in the 2009-10 school year - the last full year Diviny was principal - King exceeded its performance goals for CSAP by serving 93.8 percent of its eligible students. That put it in the top quarter of all high schools.
It does not deliver all the services it recommends for individual students, according to state reports and interviews with teachers and administrators.
It permits youngsters to languish without progress for months on end, as the case of the King students illustrates. The result: CSAP data analyzed by The Inquirer show that one-third of all students are in the program for multiple years.
Ackerman acknowledged in an interview that program guidelines are not always followed when placing students.
"What I have found happens is that educators want to jump to put them in CSAP, or go around CSAP and get them some social and emotional services right away," she said. "Some of these issues are directly related to the lack of academic skills or the lack of the appropriate academic strategies and . . . classroom management strategies."
She said the district has the resources to provide services to children.
"You're speaking to somebody who knows this with my eyes closed," Ackerman said. "Now, can I guarantee that everybody is going to do it exactly the way I did it as a principal? All I can do is continue to try to give the support to principals and teachers so that it's implemented with fidelity."
Her chief accountability officer, David Weiner, said he is satisfied that in most cases, children are getting at least some of the recommended services.
"In some environments [CSAP] works extremely well," he said. "It works well at identifying the kids, providing supports for the kids, helping the children improve in academic, behavioral, social, and emotional issues."
Few dispute that under the right circumstances, CSAP can be effective.
District spokeswoman Shana Kemp pointed to the Anne Frank School, a K-5 elementary school in Bustleton near Northeast Philadelphia Airport, as an example of a school where CSAP works and students receive an ample array of services.
Frank's enrollment numbers are similar to King's - about 1,000 students to King's 1,100. But otherwise the two schools have little in common.
For starters, Frank has fewer than 100 children in CSAP, and they are fifth graders or below.
About half of the Frank students are classified as economically disadvantaged, while 75 percent of King students are. And just 6 percent of Frank students are in special education, vs. 27 percent at King.
In statewide tests, King scores well below the city average for reading and math, while Anne Frank scores well above.
A broken program
Experts who see CSAP's failures - the Rashaans, the Ralphs, and the Diquans - have complained for years that the program is broken.
These students regularly turn up before judges in the courts, or find their way to mental-health advocacy groups or legal-aid clinics and disciplinary schools. This has left critics increasingly dismayed.
At Monday's hearing, Dougherty decried that the district had done so little for the three King boys.
A total of 1,917 students were arrested during the 2009-10 school year, according to the district's figures.
In cases of in-school arrests, Dougherty routinely asks the district what help it has given a student headed for disaster. He said his inquiries are almost always met with a shrug.
The former director of the district's network of disciplinary schools described CSAP as "imaginary."
"People have become very skilled at documenting interventions for kids but the students don't get the help," said Gwen Morris, now an education consultant. "The kids who really need it, there are not resources there to give them."
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said teachers complain that CSAP is a largely pointless paper chase.
"Teachers complete all the CSAP paperwork, and it's quite voluminous, but after they do it, there is no follow-up," Jordan said. "So the following year, they begin again with the same students and the same process."
Luz Hernandez, an advocate in North Philadelphia for parents with disabled children, said she has worked on hundreds of cases where CSAP fails to help. "Nothing changes," she said. "They just go from one bureaucracy to another."
Caroline Watts, a psychology professor who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education and consults with district schools about safety and the CSAP process, said the district was failing to make good use of the program.
"Kids are getting stuck in CSAP and getting disciplinary actions rather than help," she said.
Rashaan Carr's immersion in CSAP did little to change his behavior. He was repeating ninth grade at the time of the playground attack.
During his first time around as a ninth grader, he had about 50 absences and was suspended almost once a month. Two of those suspensions were for five days, once for fighting and the second time for a morals offense.
Carr was almost certainly referred to CSAP then - every ninth grader is, as a matter of course, according to school counselor Crystal Little. But Carr's file - provided to The Inquirer by his mother, who got it from the school - has no record of his being enrolled in CSAP that year.
Little said all ninth graders must take a class that teaches them to make good decisions, as well as bolstering self-esteem and building "career awareness."
Counselors and teachers say freshmen can meet with upperclassmen who serve as "peer mentors," with whom they can discuss personal issues.
"We have several programs that accommodate every issue for students," she said. "It has been my experience that oftentimes students do not take advantage of those programs."
The district declined to make Little available for an interview, allowing her only to answer written questions provided by The Inquirer. The responses were then sent to the paper through Kemp.
When students in CSAP such as Carr need more than just academic support, they are asked to keep a behavior log, which records how they behave each day in class. They must bring the log to class, have the teacher complete it, and then give it to their parents to sign.
Jennifer Freeman, the union representative at King, said the log was a weak intervention at best. In many cases, she said, students and parents don't participate.
"We tell parents that the behavioral report works best if there are consequences at home," she said.
The following year, 2009-10, Carr's school records show that he was repeating the ninth grade. But Carr and his mother had a different impression. They thought he was a sophomore.
After all, he said, "I was with my friends in class."
In fact, Carr was in King's "UpGrade Academy," where he was to "make up failed courses in school year 2009," according to his school file.
Enrollment in UpGrade Academy was part of his progression into CSAP's next level, known as Tier II. He was referred for not performing to his ability, poor behavior, and failing to comply with the school's dress code.
Carr, his referral said, exhibited poor study skills and did not complete assignments, and his grades were declining.
But as far as the district was concerned, his enrollment in UpGrade Academy meant he had met a CSAP goal.
Carr would also receive some additional classroom support. His teacher would repeat directions to him, give him immediate feedback and verbal prompts, and, according to the file, "utilize a variety of instructional modalities."
As for his disruptive behavior, the team recommended that Carr be mentored and that he attend an in-school group session with a guidance counselor.
Carr recalled two such sessions, in which he sat with other boys and wrote out his career goals.
The file shows that Carr's mother, Jamie, was sent a letter notifying her when her son was placed in Tier II. The record shows she was not contacted again until her son was suspended for the attack, about six months later.
During those months, Carr's behavior did not improve. In November, Carr was suspended for a day for disrupting class and reckless endangerment.
He would be suspended three more times for cutting class and disruption. He was absent, late, or suspended 38 times. He failed almost all his classes.
Ordinarily, if a student does not respond to the intervention within 60 days, CSAP counselors are supposed to meet with parents to discuss other options, including Tier III, which might determine if the child needs to be placed in special-education courses. As for Carr, he never made it that far. A court psychologist later diagnosed him with Axis I Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a diagnosis that might have made him eligible for special educational services.
Prosecutors would later marvel at how school officials suspended Carr 17 times without calling police for offenses ranging from assault to indecent exposure.
"If you look at his school records," prosecutor Debra Naish said, "it's one of the worst ones I have ever seen, full of multiple suspensions for conduct that could have - and I don't know why it didn't - result in criminal charges. Inappropriate touching, indecent exposure, mutual confrontation, threats, fighting, assaultive behavior; so this is more than a lack-of-self-esteem issue."
'An angry young man'
Carr, a husky youth, has a knack for fixing things around the house, said his mother, a single parent who has worked as an editor at a data firm in Horsham for 10 years. She owns a house in the Olney section and makes sure her three children are in by 6:30 each night.
Carr hardly knows his father.
Quiet and guarded in conversation, he rubs his hand down from the crown of his head and over his eyes when he talks.
A psychologist who interviewed him after he was arrested said Carr has an intense need for people to understand his difficulties - the sort of problem CSAP ought to address - yet is reluctant to talk about them.
"Rashaan is an angry young man who understands that he needs psychological counseling in order to avoid situations that make him vulnerable to rearrest," the report concluded. It also said he is strongly motivated toward achievement despite his behavioral difficulties.
Carr is so desperate for guidance that he asked the psychologist to be his mentor.
"Rashaan believes his father does not like or love him. He asked this examiner if he could have this type of relationship" with him, the report said.
His mother said she would have "welcomed" a mentor for her son - an intervention recommended for him in CSAP, but one Carr and his mother said he never received.
King has four counselors, but they don't have time to see all the children who need them. Counselors across the district complain they are constantly overworked - they all regularly fill in for classroom teachers.
Diviny said she had four counselors - that's 900 hours in a school year for all 900 CSAP cases if each student gets an hour.
"There's probably 200 students on the waiting list who need a behavior specialist, but she can't handle that kind of caseload," Diviny said.
King has one such specialist - whom Little described as "awesome" - but the school is only allowed to refer 40 students at a time.
And even when a student is helped, it may go for naught. Diviny recalled the case of a student the school spent countless hours helping, only to see him wind up in jail.
Each year, the School District files an accounting of its CSAP program with the state Department of Education, which compiles an annual report card. It paints a disturbing portrait of the program.
For example, in the 2009-10 school year - the most recent year studied in the state report - the report showed that of 671 youngsters identified as in need of "crisis intervention," fully 40 percent never received it.
The data were similarly dismal for a host of other CSAP services, reporting that the provision of services fell short in areas ranging from guidance advice to mentoring. Among other findings, the state report said that of youngsters in need of in-school group therapy, fully 44 percent failed to receive it.
School District officials say the state report was unfairly bleak.
In fact, the officials said, most students listed as receiving no help had received at least some services. The district said that when the state produced the report, it gave the district no credit for assisting a student unless the youngster had received every recommended service. Students who got only some services were listed as having received none, they said.
Weiner, the district's accountability officer, also said he had recently called state education officials, who had acknowledged that the reporting problem rested with them and that they were planning to fix it. Weiner said he could not remember the name of the person with whom he spoke.
But Myrna Delgado, the state official whose staff issues the reports, disputed all that.
Delgado said no one on her staff or her data consultants could recall receiving a call from Weiner. She also disagreed that the report was flawed.
Further, she said, the state had merely reported the results as provided by the Philadelphia district.
"We don't change data," she said.
Weiner said that after The Inquirer raised questions about the program, he looked at a sampling of more than 100 cases and concluded that virtually all those students had received at least some help. However, beyond the sample, Weiner said, the district did not have a hard count of how many CSAP students had received all, some, or no services. To get the answer, he said, he would have to physically look through each case.
Susan Tarasevich, a Pittsburgh-based education expert who has trained providers for similar programs and studied the results for 20 years, said Philadelphia was the only district that appeared to have such a reporting problem.
She called the district an outlier.
Weiner conceded that some schools were better than others at implementing the program.
"It's a work in progress," he said. "People have to fully understand what CSAP is and what it's going to look like. Because of some of the challenges we've encountered, we are changing CSAP moving forward."
Even now, the district gives principals an incentive to drive students into the program.
Under Ackerman's annual school accountability system, principals are graded by the district and rewarded by receiving a higher mark for placing more children in the program.
CSAP is one of the grading categories in these reports - crucial to principals' careers - along with student test scores, truancy, and tardiness.
The bulk of the CSAP grade is based simply on how many students a school has placed in the various tiers of the program. Every school - even high performing schools like Masterman or Central - is given a target number of how many students to enroll.
The grading does take into account whether any services are actually delivered, but principals themselves are responsible for tracking the results.
For example, at Tier II, the district gives a school credit for providing an intervention when the CSAP team holds a meeting about what to do for a student and enters the case into the district's database, according to a document provided by the district.
"You have numbers you have to hit, so the emphasis has been on getting kids in the program, not getting them help," said Freeman, the King union representative.
"It's just a way schools can inflate their grade on the annual accountability reports," she said.
Watts, the Penn psychologist, said the accountability system incentivizes the wrong things. If the district delivered more services to children in need, it would see a reduction in violence, she said.
Now, she lamented, "compliance is more about paperwork accuracy rather than what the paperwork is intended to deliver."
Tough struggles for two
Ralph Moore's mother, Angela Young, said that when she returned her son to school after his suspensions, nobody ever mentioned that there was a program to help him. She said she was unaware that her son had been placed in CSAP, both in ninth and 10th grades.
She views her son, now 17, as a shy and easily manipulated boy. She said she wished that the schools, rather than the streets, had set his course in life.
When Moore was born, he was immediately placed into foster care. The state had already removed his six siblings from his mother, who struggled with addiction.
For six years, Ralph Moore had no contact with his mother. But Young, who now works as a hair stylist and also baby-sits, fought to get her life together and regained custody of her children.
His test scores show Moore is smarter than most of his classmates, but had trouble adjusting to school and repeated kindergarten.
He was small for his age and desperate for friends, said Young. When she bought Moore toys, he usually gave them away.
Eventually, Moore began to perform well at his elementary school. The summer before he entered King, he worked for the Indochinese-American Council as part of the summer youth-work program in Philadelphia.
The director wrote in a letter to the court that Moore was trustworthy, hard-working, self-motivated, and responsible.
Still, Moore's father - Ralph Sr. - said his son was a follower "more than anything" and can be intimidated by larger classmates.
King, which has been on and off the "persistently dangerous" list for years, was a jarring experience for Moore. "I could never concentrate," he said. "There was always fighting, people acting up."
He said he wanted to learn but feared being labeled a bookworm, which would open him to abuse.
To keep his friends, Moore said, he felt he had to make mischief without getting into too much trouble. He also worried about the One-Fours, a street gang.
Moore's ninth-grade teachers during the 2008-09 school year noticed he was missing class and failing his course work. He had 28 unexcused absences and was late 16 times. In March, he was suspended for two days for being disruptive.
He was placed in CSAP, although he said he doesn't know when.
In just the ninth grade, 200 of 300 students at King are in CSAP Tier II. More than 100 were repeating the ninth grade.
Like Carr and Moore, Diquan Allen was frequently in trouble and in CSAP - on paper, at least. It's unclear what help he received.
Allen was raised by parents until they separated when he was 6. He moved with his mother back and forth between Philadelphia and Baltimore. "I did not know where I was going to stay," he said.
A psychologist who interviewed him for his court case said he was suffering from chronic depression as well as post-traumatic stress syndrome. He had been beaten and abused when he was younger, he told the psychologist.
Once, he said, he put a knife to his own throat because he was about to be defeated by "invisible people."
He said he often felt lonely and unwanted: "My nerves are bad. I feel empty. I need guidance. What pains me is looking back at my life."
A fight, then the attack
On the morning of the playground attack, Diquan Allen got into a fight in the hallway at King with the One-Fours gang.
Moore and Carr watched as the boys scuffled. The One-Fours promised they would get the three later that day. The boys said they went to security officers and told them they were scared and wanted to skip an assembly in the school auditorium, where the One-Fours would likely gather.
They were told to return to the auditorium, but left school instead.
They walked to Carr's house near the Olney Transportation Center and grabbed a bat. They went to buy Chinese food and ran into two girls they knew from King, who weren't in class either. The girls invited the boys to a barbecue.
On their way to the party, the boys passed Howe Elementary, in the Fern Rock section, and stopped to watch the children play. Moore said it appeared as if the children were fighting.
Allen said he thought it was a play fight and funny. "We were all laughing at them," he said.
The boys walked into the schoolyard, and a school aide told them to leave because they were scaring the students.
"The kids were hitting each other, we didn't hit them," Carr said.
The young students who testified at a preliminary hearing said the three boys attacked them without provocation, striking some in the face. One identified Carr. Another pointed out Moore and Allen and said they laughed as the attack happened.
Though no one was seriously injured, police saw victims with bumps, swollen eyes, and lacerations. The younger boys said the impact of the attack lingered. One boy testified that he was afraid to go upstairs alone in his own home.
Another boy told how he watched his friends buckle after getting hit in the back.
After the King students were charged as adults, their lawyers had to convince a Common Pleas Court judge that they should instead be tried as juveniles.
Their argument was that Carr, Moore, and Allen had never been in trouble with police before, and all came from hard-working families with parents who care.
All the boys needed, psychologists concluded, was help - the sort of help that could have come through CSAP.
"I see a school record that makes me ask if anyone is paying attention," said Carr's attorney, Nikia Way Khan, whose mother was a teacher at King in the 1970s. She lasted only one day.
The judge agreed and sent all the cases to Family Court.
Judge Dougherty saw it much the same way when he found the boys delinquent. He lamented the lack of action on the part of the School District.
"Now you're going to get the help you need," he told them.
For now, all three boys are done with the Philadelphia public schools.
They will be removed from their families and their neighborhoods, the judge said, and sent away to facilities where where they can get counseling - and an education.
Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.