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State reps. want safe schools advocate again

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

The Office of the Safe Schools Advocate, which has been unfilled since 2009, may get another start.

Representatives John Taylor (R- Phila.) and Bill Keller (D-Phila.) announced at a press conference at District headquarters that they will propose legislation to fully fund the office. The legislation will re-establish the office, this time under the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, rather than the Department of Education.

The Office of the Safe Schools Advocate was created in 2001 to address the vast underreporting of violent crimes against students and teachers in Philadelphia public schools. By re-establishing the office, Reps. Taylor and Keller, who co-authored the 2001 law as well, hope to assist victims of school violence and help ensure that violent incidents are being reported accurately.

“There still is a whole host of folks that represent the perpetrator, but right now… there’s not one independent body that represents the victims,” said Rep. Tyler. “We want to make sure there are advocates on each side.”

In previous years, violent incident reports would be sent to the advocate who would send a letter “almost immediately” to the victim’s home offering help, according to former advocate, Harvey Rice.

State law already mandates that the office exist, but in 2009 Governor Rendell eliminated the position of advocate, citing budget restrictions. Rep. Taylor said that the office had been allocated $1 million each year in administrations before Rendell, but that funding was never fully actualized. Rice said at the press conference that his operating budget as advocate was just over $300,000.

Rep. Taylor is again proposing $1 million for the office, but said that in this budget climate, they could likely “work with less.”

He said that Governor Corbett’s budget is fixed in how much the state will spend, but “wide open” in how that fixed amount will be spent.

“I just think it’s an investment that has to be made… We’re going to encourage Governor Corbett to embrace this. With his law enforcement background, it should make perfect sense to him.”

Rep. Taylor said that by moving the office out of the Department of Education and into the Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the advocate would gain independence and be able to serve as a watchdog who does not answer the Department of Education. Under Superintendent Vallas, Rep. Taylor said, the advocate faced retribution for suggesting improvements to the safety protocol.

Rice said the position and the office ought to be filled because they really do have an impact on school safety.

“We made some significant gains. We could see the incidents drop. And I think that parents and students realized that there was someone that they could turn to, that would accept and listen and understand and advocate for them… [It] made parents and kids feel a little safer.”

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