District toughens policies on assaults by students

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Students who assault or threaten school staff face an automatic 10-day suspension, along with possible expulsion and criminal charges.

That new mandate came out of a March meeting between School District Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, union representatives, and Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson.

The District will no longer leave filing police reports on assaults by students aged 10 and older to the discretion of the principal; police will be called in all such cases. Cases involving students under the age of 10 will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

In the wake of recent reports of assaults against teachers, the judgment calls of principals have come into question.

“Teachers were alleging that principals were not calling the police even when the teacher wanted them to,” said Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the District. “Now, no matter what, the police will be called, and they will ask whether the victim wants to press charges.”

Some disapprove of the policy change.

“I’m skeptical about a policy that gives teachers total discretion over whether the police are called,” said Len Rieser, co-director of the Education Law Center, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group for parents and students. “The principal should be a part of this decision.”

Sheila Simmons, with the child advocacy group Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, questioned the new approach toward arrests, saying, “We recognize that some situations are serious and require the police, but there is a place where common sense comes into play. The District already depends too heavily on punitive measures.”

Vallas said that it was better for the District to “err on the side of overreacting” and let the hearing process sort it out.

In addition to the arrest policy, the District has also created a new hotline for staff who want to report assaults. The hotline number is 215-400-STOP (7867).

Other new measures include:

  • Training in prevention and diciplinary processes at the District’s nine most dangerous schools.
  • Placement of a “Distinguished Educator” in those nine schools to support teaching staff.
  • Assessment of the District’s alternative schools and their student academic and behavioral performance.