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District ‘taking seriously’ commission report on intergroup conflict

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

District officials are "taking very seriously" a report from the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations finding that it lacks the policies and procedures to prevent and counteract widespread intergroup conflict in city schools.

The report, drawn from 11 public hearings on school violence triggered by December, 2009 incidents at South Philadelphia High School, was officially released at a City Hall press conference Tuesday.

Tomás Hanna, associate superintendent for academic support, noted that the District’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Safe Schools will make recommendations in June. He said the District is already taking some action, including principal training, and will put a "comprehensive plan in place" to address issues brought out in the report, called "Widening the Circle of Our Concern."

It painted a disturbing picture of a District that lacks "a clear and consistent framework for preventing and resolving intergroup conflicts," while the policies in place "are neither uniformly implemented, nor clearly communicated." The report questioned whether the District even recognizes intergroup conflicts as a systemwide problem that needs to be prioritized. The report also found that language services for students and families that don’t speak English are woefully inadequate and exacerbate problems.

The PCHR document is the second major report to come out in the last few months to declare the zero-tolerance discipline policy a failure "that alienates students and has an adverse effect on school climate." Youth United for Change came to a similar conclusion in January.

At the same time, the report said, the District has failed to adequately pursue and implement alternative discipline strategies, including positive behavior supports, peer mediation, and restorative justice – all of which emphasize prevention, restitution, and conflict resolution over punishment.

Hanna said that the District "wants to do everything possible to create an environment for young people where teachers can teach and students can learn," and "doesn’t apologize for policies that make young people feel safe," including metal detectors and other security measures. At the hearings, some students said that the jail-like security at schools does not set the right tone for learning.

Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman said that School Reform Commission chairman Robert Archie had personally assured him that he will do "anything and everything he can" to improve processes in which incidents can be reported and dealt with systematically.

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