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Winter 2001
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Philadelphia’s Blackboard Jungle
Kay S. Hymowitz
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When regulations keep teachers from disciplining, students run wild.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives' recent report on violence in Philadelphia's public schools, based on hundreds of interviews with parents, teachers, and school officials, reads like a lost canto of Dante's Inferno. Gropings, kickings, stompings, tauntings, student-set fires—on and on it depressingly goes. It's equal-opportunity brutality: victims include everyone from third-graders to high school seniors, teachers to vice principals, even school safety officers.

Almost as shocking as the violence itself is the feckless response of school officials. Example: two thugs ram a classmate into a closed school door, knocking him unconscious. Did the school expel the baddies, or even suspend them? Nope: the dean of students ordered the perpetrators and their innocent victim to participate in mediation, as if there were no difference between them—a "punishment" made even more ludicrous when the malefactors didn't bother to show up.

For the dean to crack down with any real force would require heroic effort. Thanks to a bewildering accumulation of federal, state, and district regulations, a suspended student usually can return to class after just three to five days. Even worse, expelling a student to one of the district's "alternative" schools for miscreants takes 20 separate steps, including filling out 26 documents and sending them to 13 people. Miss a deadline, fail to fill out a form just right, and the whole process begins all over again—while the attacker remains in class. Expelling a student permanently is next to impossible. Some principals just try to transfer the worst cases to other schools, without alerting the new school to the transfer's bad habits—a poor solution, but arguably better than the more common Philly alternative of transferring the victim and letting the punk stay.

The report also found massive underreporting of violent incidents, as teachers, often under orders from superiors, keep mum. A teacher and a dean at Olney High School claimed that the school had 77 fires in 1998–99; the district officially reported only two fires. Pittsburgh, with a student population of 50,000, reported 4,020 assaults on students in 1998–99; Philadelphia, with 210,000 students, reported only 859 assaults. Nobody would claim that Philadelphia's schools are that much safer than Pittsburgh's.

The report rightly recommends easing the regulations that make it hard for principals and teachers to remove troublemakers and establish a safe and orderly classroom. Particularly egregious, the report points out, are the special-education rules that effectively forbid educators to suspend or expel the "emotionally disturbed" kids we once just would have called "antisocial." These regulations supposedly protect the rights of misbehaving students. But with teachers complaining that they spend 95 percent of their time disciplining the 5 percent of students who are responsible for most of the violence, perhaps it's time to question what we mean by rights.

 

 


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