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Ackerman: Discipline has “gray areas”

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

Just as the Notebook’s edition on school climate was hot off the press, District and state education leaders held a press conference Thursday to declare that school violence has not diminished in Pennsylvania – and to outline their response.

Statewide, serious incidents over the past five years have stayed the same, state officials said. In Philadelphia, they have declined, but the city is still the only district in the state to have “persistently dangerous” schools.

State Board of Education Chairman Joseph Torsella declared, “We are … overall failing” on school safety.

He and state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said that the state would tighten reporting requirements for districts, even broaching the possibility of criminal charges for failure to report incidents. Among other things, the goal is to assure that all use the same standards to categorize and report incidents.

But while there might be guidelines, the decision on what constitutes a “serious incident” in a great many cases is a matter of judgment. And in Philadelphia, while there are often conflicting pressures on principals, there have been periodic messages from District leaders suggesting that principals should be reporting everything.

In preparing the edition, the Notebook sent a survey to principals, and the results were interesting – principals said they felt they were getting mixed messages about using their common sense.

At the press conference, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman affirmed that there are “gray areas” relating to incident reporting. While the District has resumed expulsions and is promoting toughness with students, Ackerman has now repeatedly voiced her concern about “criminalizing” young people for disruptive behavior in school.

She related in detail her recent chance encounter with a visibly upset mother and a young boy on the steps of District headquarters. They had just come from a disciplinary hearing because the boy had pushed away the hand of a teacher who had taken his hand in trying to get him to move along.

“What happened was the teacher declared that this was an assault,” she said. “This was not an assault in my picture, in my mind. I’ve been there, where children will say, ‘Don’t bother me,’ and pull me away.

“I got—not on my knees, but got down, face-to-face with him, and I asked him to tell me what happened, and he did. He’s a cute little boy, and I’m thinking, do we really want to criminalize this child? What does this say for him, that he’s been now involved not only with this hearing but with the police over an assault? As far as I’m concerned, as a teacher – former teacher, and principal –and I’ve had kids kick at – I’ve seen them do that to their parents.

“You know, so I do think there are some gray areas. And I do think we need to be careful about having the police department only define that,” she said.

Ackerman’s message in this follow-up discussion was somewhat different from the press conference statement of Zahorchak, who said the state is working closely with police to standardize the definitions of reportable incidents.

There is “no one better to help us do that than the folks from the police community, regional through state,” he said. “What is the difference between assault and aggravated assault? What is the difference between being disruptive and something called an assault? Police are very well trained in understanding what reaches the threshold.”

It was quite ironic that at the same time the assembled brass of the School District and state education leaders were addressing the issue of whether school violence was up or down in Pennsylvania, ethnic conflict was apparently playing itself out at South Philadelphia High School. The Daily News reported that 26 Asian students were attacked there that same day.

The District’s immediate response was defensive; Michael Silverman, superintendent of the high school region, said assaults at the school were down 50 percent.

That might be true, but the incident draws attention to another theme of our edition: that prevention is as important as disciplinary crackdown. One of the students we tracked in our No Easy Road series is a young African American named Will who has been recommended for disciplinary transfer because of an off-campus scuffle he had with an Asian student. From what we know of Will, he is not a kid with deep biases, but could go with the flow or go in a positive direction, depending on what happens at the school.

It seems a lot more could be done to reduce tensions at the school than is being done now.

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