Published Online: March 20, 2007
Published in Print: March 21, 2007, as Phila. Cracks Down on Assaults by Students

Phila. Cracks Down on Assaults by Students

Violent incidents against teachers prompt new policies.

A recent wave of violence in Philadelphia public schools has left several teachers injured, led to dozens of student arrests and expulsions, and prompted a crackdown on student offenders.

Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the district, has announced that students 10 years or older who assault teachers or other school employees will receive automatic 10-day suspensions, pending expulsion to an alternative school. Offenders, he said, will be charged with aggravated assault, a felony.

And, amid growing complaints that some principals do not report every violent incident, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s safe schools advocate this month set up a hotline for teachers to independently report assaults.

The tougher penalties follow high-profile attacks on teachers and other violent episodes in two of the city’s largest high schools, Germantown High and West Philadelphia High. Officials in the 185,000-student district reported 409 student assaults on teachers between September and January, up about 4 percent over those same five months in the 2005-06 school year.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents the district’s roughly 10,300 teachers, reports that a growing number of its members don’t feel safe in their classrooms.

“The chief complaint that we hear is that there just isn’t enough adult supervision in many of these schools,” said Barbara Goodman, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers affiliate. “The environment in some of these schools is really hostile, with constant fights. There’s a level of physicality that is very disturbing.”

In the worst incident, a 15-year-old male student at Germantown High in north Philadelphia broke mathematics teacher Frank Burd’s neck last month when he struck the teacher several times.

Confiscated iPod

Minutes before the assault, Mr. Burd, 60, had confiscated an iPod from a 17-year-old male student, who, according to published accounts, followed the teacher from his classroom into a hallway, threatening him. The 17-year-old either tripped or pushed Mr. Burd, who fell into the 15-year-old student. That student then hit the teacher two or three times, causing him to hit his head on a locker and fall, news reports said.

Mr. Burd remains in a rehabilitation facility, Ms. Goodman said last week. The 15-year-old pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and will be sentenced next month. The 17-year-old, facing similar charges, has requested a trial.

Much of the recent violence has been at West Philadelphia High, where as many as eight student-on-teacher assaults have been reported since late last month. Earlier this month, Mr. Vallas fired the principal, a move that prompted further student disruptions, including a series of fires set in trash cans and lockers that forced multiple evacuations.

Ed Klein, a music teacher for 17 years in Philadelphia schools, is still recovering after a 16-year-old male student at West Philadelphia High broke his jaw in November.

Mr. Klein, who had been reassigned to the campus three weeks before he was attacked, said students harassed him over several days, threatening him for calling their parents to report disruptive behavior. They sprayed him twice with water from a fire extinguisher, he said. The day of his assault, Mr. Klein said, he told a campus security guard that he was going to ask to be moved to another school.

“I had decided I couldn’t work in that building any more,” Mr. Klein said in a telephone interview. “Then, a few hours later, I’ve got a kid hitting me so hard that my jaw broke, my head slapped against the wall, and I had a concussion. I still can’t believe it.”

The 16-year-old was arrested, and Mr. Klein said that district officials told him the student was expelled and sent to a disciplinary school. Mr. Klein, 55, has not returned to work.

Mr. Vallas called those and other incidents disturbing, but said they don’t represent a significant escalation in the occurrence of assaults on teachers. Of the incidents reported up to January of this school year, 26 percent were committed by students in the 4th grade or younger.

“We define assault very broadly,” Mr. Vallas said. “Some of these could have been a push or a brush up against a teacher.”

Disciplinary Schools

Still, Mr. Vallas said, he will press aggressively to remove disruptive students from classrooms and place them in the district’s disciplinary schools. A series of consent decrees that were issued to settle lawsuits filed in the 1970s have created a system “that hasn’t allowed us to exact the kind of discipline as fast as it needs to happen,” Mr. Vallas said.

He also called for increased parental involvement and said breaking up West Philadelphia High into smaller campuses must be expedited. Since becoming the district’s chief in 2002, Mr. Vallas said, he has created 33 small high schools to replace the large, aging neighborhood schools that typically have been the city’s most violent and lowest-achieving. Germantown High and West Philadelphia High are two of six remaining comprehensive high schools that serve more than 1,500 students, most of whom come from low-income families.

“These are some of the few giant high schools that we need to close,” Mr. Vallas said. “I’m not saying there are excuses for these kids to be acting out the way that they are, but we’ve got a responsibility to get them into smaller schools that we know will work a lot better for them and for our teachers.”

PHOTO: A Philadelphia police officer stands outside West Philadelphia High School on March 12. Eight student-on-teacher assaults have been reported at the school since late last month.
—Matt Rourke/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 28, Pages 5,12

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