School Violence: A Symptom of a More Serious Illness

29 Mar

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by, Frank Murphy, March 29, 2011

It was about this time of year in the spring of 2005 that the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an investigative report titled, “The Meanest Streets.”  I referenced this report in Installment Eight of the March chapter of Confessions of an Urban Principal.


It was an interesting series that detailed the extent to which murder and mayhem impacted some of our city’s most distressed neighborhoods.  The community that surrounded Meade Elementary School located in North Philadelphia was one of the three most violent neighborhoods described in this account.

Back then the rising murder rate in Philadelphia was big news.  Detailed accounts of neighborhood gun violence regularly occupied prime space in both of the city’s newspapers.  Dealing with this public safety issue was the number one priority of the media and the local elected officials.  In their extensive report, Inquirer reporters detailed the magnitude of the problem.  They discussed the complex variables that contributed to this public health hazard and examined programs that were designed to address this social ill.

Eventually this story faded into the background as the ever-churning news cycles took up other topics of interest.  A new mayor was elected and a new police commissioner was installed.  In the years that followed the city’s budget deficit and then our national economic downturn became the dominant focus of the media’s attention.

More recently city school reform has been a prominent news story.  Currently the Inquirer is running a series of articles that are part of another investigative report.  School violence is the focus of this latest journalistic endeavor. So far the message of the published articles in this series is twofold. First: according to the Inquirer the occurrence of violent incidents in our public schools is wide spread.  Second: district administrators are under reporting the extent of this problem.

After analyzing school district serious incident reports for the last five years the Inquirer has concluded that the district’s claim of a dramatic decrease in school related violent incidents is inaccurate.  This conclusion was based upon several factors: confusion concerning what constituted a serious incident caused an unusually high number of incidents to be reported during the 2007-2008 school year; these statistics created an unrealistic benchmark against which to measure a decline in incidents during subsequent years; and the dwindling student population of the district since 2000 contributed to the decline in violent incidents. As well, the Inquirer claims that the possibility that school administrators may be under reporting incidents casts suspicion on the accuracy of the statistics reported by the district.

The current district administrative leadership claims that violent incidents have declined by more than 29% during the last two years.  The Inquirer analysis of district data asserts that there has, in fact, been a 17% increase in violent incidents in high schools as a whole in 2009-10 as compared to the 2005-06 school year.  From my own experiences with how the school district misrepresents a variety of data, I too doubt the school district’s recent claims.

So far I have read only two of the articles in this special report by the Inquirer.  I am interested in seeing the eventual direction it will take and its conclusions. Hopefully the Inquirer reporters won’t broadly indict the many decent educators in our school district who struggle to make our schools safe places, and recognize this is a complex issue.

There isn’t a manual for school leaders that details how to deal with school violence. To resolve all incidents of student misbehavior fairly, firmly and with full regard for the safety of all individuals should be the objective of a good school principal.  Yet understanding the problems and concerns of the people involved, the norms of a particular community, and figuring out how to prevent (rather than merely punish) dangerous, compulsive juvenile behavior is a challenging task.

Reading the anecdotal examples of violence described by the reporters in these articles I am once again struck by the complexity of school violence.   As a school principal, I quickly learned to take note of factors that negatively influenced my school climate.  Neighborhood feuds, persistent bullying, and the prevalence of community norms that support the use of violence were some of the most troublesome matters that I dealt with on a regular basis.   These were common threads that weaved through my work as a principal of an elementary school in a high poverty community, yet most of the time I had to find solutions without school district support. In Confessions of an Urban Principal I delve deeply into the complexity of these issues.

Not that many years ago the citizens our city were deeply alarmed by a shocking rise in our murder rate. Now we hardly hear any discussion of this matter. What happened to that problem?   Did we find a cure? The accounts detailed in our local paper of students, parents and teachers who have been victims of aggravated assaults in our schools should give us all pause. Is the schoolhouse violence identified in this latest investigative report an indication that our city’s greater violent ills are still going untreated?  I think so.  How long will it be until our city leaders return their full attention to the persistent violence that eats at the social fabric of our most distressed neighborhoods?

  1. Bobbie Cratchit

    March 29, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Frank, I too, have followed the story closely…I agree that district data is flawed. What has struck me most about the series is the response of the district officials. Sunday’s installment stated “Dr. Ackerman placed much of the responsibility on the Teacher s and Principals.” In today’s series I was shocked to see the following quote:

    Hearing of the case ( of a pregnant teacher being punched in the stomach by a student) Wright (Benjamin Wright, Assistant Superintendent of Alternative Schools for the School District of Philadelphia) said “Pregnant teachers should know how to protect themselves…the teacher should have given the boy what he wanted and then called for help…If I am in a school and I am a teacher and I am pregnant, make sure I don’t put myself in harm’s way because the kids are going to be kids.”

    This does not seem to be the attitude that the district should be taking. This is in no way collaborative or show a willingness to improve.

    With that being said, today’s article illustrates some of the families and their struggles living in disenfranchised neighborhoods . Reading these family’s stories illustrates your point about the current of violence in our city and how it filters into our schools.

    I too, await the findings and conclusions of this series.