Philly district posts more data on school violence

PHILADELPHIA - December 23, 2011

Dates and brief descriptions of "serious incidents" - including weapons and drug offenses and assaults - are now posted on websites for each of the district's 249 schools, excluding charters. The statistics will be updated monthly.

The effort falls in line with recent pledges of transparency from the district's new acting superintendent and mostly new school board. Officials have been blasted repeatedly over the years for underplaying the number and severity of violent incidents in schools.

Until last week, school websites only displayed yearly statistics for major offenses in general categories. But the public can now see that, in the past three weeks, South Philadelphia High School reported three assaults on students and one on school police; two incidents of disorderly conduct (fighting); one report of threats; and one incident of weapons (cutting instrument).

The data helps cut through the broad labels - South Philly High has been on the state's "persistently dangerous" list for the past five years - to find out what's really happening in the hallways, said parent and community activist Helen Gym.

"There's sort of a generic assumption that there are violent schools and there are safe schools," Gym said. "People don't have a real strong understanding of what is meant by that."

While acknowledging that releasing the information is in some ways a big step for the district, School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos also downplayed the move, saying it simply makes sense for a generation accustomed to having "voluminous data" at its fingertips.

"It's less of a big deal than it might have been at a different time," Ramos said.

The specificity and currency of the newly available information can identify trends and help parents ask better questions of their children and school staff, said Kelley Hodge, the state-appointed safe schools advocate for the district.

Hodge said she finds it "extremely encouraging" that the district is sharing the information.

"I think it invites a conversation that needs to be had," Hodge said, "and parents can't have the conversation if they don't know what's going on."

But Jack Stollsteimer, Hodge's predecessor, said it could also lead to more students leaving the district in pursuit of safer classrooms. And he said he'd be hesitant to believe the new statistics because of the district's longstanding history of underreporting.

Posting the data is progress, he said, but it doesn't make schools safer.

"The statistics themselves are meaningless unless they lead to some policy changes or some way of addressing violence," Stollsteimer said.

Gym said the published data will help ensure that violence is properly documented because students and parents can now see how and when an offense was reported.

In 2009, Asian students at South Philly High said racially motivated attacks against them were largely unreported by school authorities, leading to a Justice Department investigation. The school district later agreed to state and federal oversight until June 2013 to address the violence.

"It's a good start and hopefully it will help lead to better resolutions, better investigations, better tracking," Gym said of the new statistics. "It's just been unacceptable the way it's worked in the past."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the move to release the data was under way even before The Philadelphia Inquirer published an investigative series earlier this year detailing what it called a pervasive climate of violence in the schools that stifles learning.

Hard copies of the reports will be available to those without online access, Gallard said Friday.

Philadelphia is the state's largest district, with about 146,000 students. The district's Blue Ribbon Commission on Safe Schools plans to issue its first report next month.

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