The fog machine was on full blast last week when state and local education officials met to discuss discipline - or lack thereof - in Philadelphia's public schools.
State Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak didn't want to be seen as twiddling his thumbs whilst the district grappled with a spate of violent incidents. Hence, the meeting.
The parties, who included Philly schools CEO Paul Vallas, emerged with an agenda that included such items as appointing "Immediate Responders" (read: disciplinarians) in nine of the district's most troublesome high schools, and the dispatching of "Distinguished Teachers" from other areas of the state to support work of the "School Climate Committee" in those nine schools.
Finally, the group agreed to revive a School Safety Advisory Committee to, well, advise on school safety.
They should call it the Burd Committee, in honor of Frank Burd, the Germantown High School teacher who had his neck broken by student toughs.
That incident - along with mini-riots staged by students at West Philadelphia High School - prompted the district and the state to go on red alert over violence, as if the problem were something new.
It is not. According to district figures, in the 2004-05 school year, there were nearly 6,000 "serious incidents" in Philadelphia's public schools. Of that total, about 4,000 were assaults - students' attacking fellow students, teachers and staff.
According to a report done by consultant Ellen Green-Ceisler, the district handles these so-called Level II cases with a combination of inconsistency and ineptitude.
Green-Ceisler discovered that only 19 percent of Level II cases resulted in a student's being transferred from a school.
The School Reform Commission, which runs the public schools, likes to talk about having a "Zero Tolerance Policy" on violence.
I don't think that's quite the right name for a policy that results in 79 out of every 100 Level II offenders' remaining in the schools where they committed their misdeeds.
My suggestion is that the SRC remove the "Zero" and make it, simply, the "Tolerance Policy."
These are good and decent people trying their best, but in this matter, their best is not good enough. Piling a mound of verbiage around the problem is not a solution.
Any solution has to begin with a recognition that we are, essentially, asking educators to function as police, and (no surprise) they aren't very good at it. We do have people who are trained in policing. They are called the police.
In Chicago, they have police in the public schools. In New York, the police commissioner trains and oversees the school police.
Why not in Philadelphia? Because Mayor Street doesn't want armed cops in the schools. He doesn't like the image it conveys. Well, I don't like the image conveyed by 4,000 kids, teachers and staff getting assaulted every school year.
The presence of specially trained police in the schools working with (not for - an important distinction) principals would be a deterrent for sure. In the event of a serious incident, it would also assure a quick response.
The candidates for mayor are all talking about how they plan to help the public schools. Here is something concrete that they can do next year.
The next mayor should assign police to the schools, preferably to all of them, but certainly to the 100 or so high schools and middle schools.
Assigning 100 police to the schools would cost the city about $8 million a year, but it would save the district money it could divert into several areas.
One of them would be to follow Green-Ceisler's recommendation to create a cabinet-level position of safety to oversee the disciplinary mechanism in the schools. His job would be to knock down the walls of the maze. I even have a candidate for the job: Jack Stollsteimer, who is currently serving as the state-paid safe-schools advocate. He knows the system. He knows its problems. As a former federal prosecutor, he knows policing, too.
If the district gets serious about removing dangerous students from the schools, it is going to need more AEP spots. AEP stands for alternative educational placements (read: disciplinary schools). The district has 3,000 AEP spots now. It will need to double that number, at least, if it begins to enforce in earnest.
These schools cost about $14,000 per student. Why doesn't the state put its money where its mouth is on this issue and subsidize the difference between regular education and AEP? It would cost about $18 million a year for an additional 3,000 spots.
Experts say that, in any urban district, 5 percent of the students are chronically disruptive or dangerous.
So be it. But why let those 5 percent make school hell for the other 95 percent? It is time to end their rule in Philadelphia's public schools.