This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Moreso than many of the previous hearings on school violence held by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR), Tuesday night’s gathering of parents, principals, and students at the Towey Center in North Philadelphia highlighted some positive efforts to combat hostile school climate.
“We can spend our time addressing these issues, or we can develop academically,” said James Williams, principal of Kensington Culinary High School.
Williams brought with him security guard Ryan Smith, the self-described “guardian angel” at Kensington. Smiths’ role, he said, is to “diffuse the situation.” He listens to students and notifies the administration of potential conflict, after which an intervention is scheduled. Approaching conflict in this way, he said, allows for fewer fights and a safer environment for the real business of school – learning.
Smith says he feels safer in the neighborhood than he did when he was growing up there.
Stetson Middle School Principal Renato Lajara talked about how he has taken student safety into his own hands. Aware of after-school fights between his students and those from neighboring schools, Lajara described how he would walk right up to students and say, “This is not happening here anymore.”
By the time the story of his heroics got around school, he was the champion of the students, some of them believing rumors that he exchanged blows to protect them.
Kensington CAPA Principal Deborah Carrera said that she has been focusing on relationship-building and creating more opportunities for student voice as a way to create a caring school climate.
She has started programs such as “No Place for Hate,” a campaign against school violence, and The Hero/S-hero conference, which splits the school up by gender for a day of lectures that target student issues.
“I spend more time with you than with my own children, I tell [my students],” she said.
This was the seventh hearing in a series sparked by the violent attacks at South Philadelphia High School. The purpose is to give parents and students a forum to discuss their concerns about safety and to gather information to create solutions for a growing problem throughout all District schools.
Students from all three Kensington schools came out to support their principals, and the commission heard from a new group of students.
Gloria Casarez, director of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender) Affairs for the Mayor’s Office, testified on behalf of the District’s LGBT students. She spoke about the lack of support Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has shown for LGBT students.
“At the beginning of the school year, I met with Dr. Ackerman. She readily agreed to do the things that the advisory committee – her advisory committee – on LGBT issues recommended,” Casarez said.
According to Casarez, the letter was sent out, but nothing has taken place since.
“Meeting with providers, doing the training – which the providers would deliver themselves – and sending the letter don’t cost a thing. But they have the ability to have an enormous impact,” Casarez said.
Commissioner Kay Kyungsun Yu said that the testimonies like Casarez’s would be “rigorously analyzed” to create a database of incidents upon which to identify themes and create a factual basis for study.
“I think that every session we have, we’ve wanted to collect the ‘how do we make this better’ and the ‘how do we address the problem.’”
Citing a 2007 national survey by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Casarez reported that 83 percent of LBGT students report being harassed, and 73 percent report hearing homophobic remarks frequently during school. She also stated that 60 percent of incidents go unreported.
“One of the biggest challenges is that we don’t have Philadelphia-specific data [on violence against LGBT students]. Anything we know is anecdotal,” Cesarez said.
She said the District claims there were no reported incidences of violence toward LGBT students.
“[But] we have every reason to believe that what GLSEN found on a national level exists here.”
“We’re acknowledging that we have problems that have occurred and problems that are still occurring,” Yu said. “We look forward to continuing dialogue with the community and with the School District to make sure that we’re taking the recommendations and doing them [and] focusing on the action.”