Frustration with District failures marks public hearing on school violence

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

A series of speakers at a packed public hearing on school violence – some in tears – shared their experiences last night in what can only be described as a damning indictment of the District. Speaker after speaker – parents, teachers, and a number of students – spoke about their frustration, desperation, and anger in the face of repeated failures by the District to address safety and climate in city schools.

A Fels High School student said when his jaw was broken by a fellow student, the school failed to call an ambulance. The student was hospitalized for a week. When his parent inquired what the school was going to do, the student was offered a transfer if the family was unhappy with the school. Another parent spoke about her struggles for accountability after her eight-year-old son had a rib broken despite her repeated attempts to address his being bullied in school.

“The School District has been a complete failure,” parent Karen Rose said, citing the problem as “complete ignorance” and “lack of knowledge of violence against young children.”

Students from South Philadelphia High School spoke about how little school leadership had changed its attitude toward ongoing concerns by Asian immigrant students. They spoke about harassment in the school cafeteria in full view of adults and about the fact that administration leaders had never checked in with them since they ended their boycott over concern about their safety. They said that the only thing making them feel marginally safer was the presence of cameras in the school. However, the “relationships have not changed,” they said.

A teacher and two parents from Audenried High School were in tears after sharing their repeated requests for assistance despite escalating violence inside and outside the school, including the recent shootings of two students outside. One of the students, Tyree Parks, a student at South Philadelphia High School, was killed.

The hearing last night in South Philadelphia drew more than a hundred people and was the first in a series of public sessions by the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission.

Commissioner Kay Yu said she found the accounts “frankly shocking.” However, community members and parents said the frustrations for them have been long-standing. One community member expressed concern that the hearing would be a “bandaid forum.”

Several speakers said it was important to address climate by building nurturing teaching and learning environments rather than the typical prescriptives like increased security and metal detectors. Students needed more multicultural curricula, several speakers said, including the two students from South Philadelphia High School. Commissioner Rebecca Alpert inquired about counseling and other services available to students and families to cope through the stress following a violent incident.

Education advocate Debra Weiner called upon city leaders to denounce ethnic violence "publicly, swiftly, and passionately." She said schools must not be allowed to "pass the buck."

"Effective schools with great leaders and committed staff counteract negative neighborhood influences every day they open their doors," Weiner said. "If schools have the will, they will find the way to reduce ethnic tension – no matter what happens outside."

Alpert strongly urged the District to support teachers and school staff to speak out at the hearings.

“I’d love to see them encouraged to come out and be part of this process,” Alpert said. “It would be helpful to us if the School District made it clear — really clear — that the staff is welcome here.”

The School District did not advertise the hearings through its usual parent networks and last night’s hearing was not listed on the District’s website.

A number of observers noted that the Commission often seemed at a loss in the face of the severity of the concerns presented before them. There were a number of awkward moments. When the student who had his jaw broken gave his testimony, it was initially met with silence. He asked the Commission whether they had any questions.

One of the commissioners eventually asked where the student was from. When he answered “Maryland,” the commissioner then asked the student where he was born. “Vietnam,” the student answered after a pause.

I personally found it tragic to hear all the pain and anger of so many parents, teachers, and students. Having seen the District’s failure to address school violence at South Philadelphia High School, it’s hard not to see story after story as evidence of willful – or perhaps, learned – negligence on the District’s part.

I was also troubled by the lack of School District representation at the hearing. Not a single School Reform Commissioner was present. SRC Commissioners need to listen to first-hand accounts in order to understand the frustration over the difference between the District’s rhetoric and on-the-ground experiences of parents, students and staff. Chief of School Operations John Frangipani appeared to be the only cabinet level official present. When asked for his response to the violence at Audenried (by an audience member), he remained noncommittal and occasionally diversionary, blaming the violence on gang violence that had escalated only in the past two weeks.

It’s unclear what the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission will do with all this pain. At the very least, an entity needs to monitor and report out these cases. But doing so is not going to be enough. With a number of hearings ahead, the District can expect a lot more troubling accounts.