Phil Goldsmith on Violence in Philadelphia’s Schools

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ABOUT A MONTH after I became the interim chief executive officer of the School District of Philadelphia, in 2000, I was greeted with a damaging report by a subcommittee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives detailing rampant violence in the city’s schools.

Violence is a serious problem that the district “attempts to downplay, if not conceal,” the report asserted.

Now, a decade later, the Philadelphia Inquirer has placed a spotlight on the district once again in an updated and detailed encore, a multipart series on school violence.

Reports of violence in the city’s schools aren’t new now, nor were they a decade ago. Three decades ago, a 1980 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin article proclaimed “student beatings are up 24 percent in Philadelphia.” Another article asked, “Can We Protect Our Teachers?”

Five years before that, extensive news accounts about violence documented an incident in which students kicked and beat a partially blind teacher.

Earlier still, in February 1971, the city was shocked when popular arts-and-crafts teacher Samson Freedman was murdered — shot in the head as he walked out of Leeds Junior High School.

And in 1964, the superintendent of schools was so alarmed by attacks on teachers that he recommended they receive full pay if they missed school due to injuries suffered at the hands of students.

I have no doubt that in another decade or so, some media outlet or government agency will once again detail the problem of violence in our schools.

(It should be noted, by the way, that most violent incidents are concentrated in a minority of Philadelphia’s 264 schools, and perpetrated by a small number of its 160,000 students.)

But it’s not that nothing has been done about the problem over the years.

The district has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to curb violence in its schools, money that could otherwise go to classroom learning, improved technology, new roofs on old schools or better supplies in the classroom.

We have installed metal detectors in our high schools, surveillance cameras in hallways, hired a school police force that dwarfs the regular police forces of most municipalities, increased city police presence outside schools, built and (in some cases) privatized new alternative schools for disruptive students, introduced anti-bullying programs, and others on peer mediation and restorative justice, revamped disciplinary procedures and embraced bumper sticker-quality slogans like “zero tolerance.” The list goes on and on.

Many parents have taken action on their own to protect their children: They’ve abandoned the city for the suburbs, flocked to charter schools perceived to be safer, or opted for parochial or private schools.

Yet reports of violence still spring up year after year like unruly weeds that strangle blooming flowers.

And it’s not surprising.

We have the role of schools in “school violence” wrong.

Our schools are not the source of the problem, they are the repository.

Schools don’t manufacture guns or produce and sell drugs. They don’t make violent movies or television shows, write misogynist or violent lyrics to rap music or create single-parent homes with high unemployment. And yet, we expect our teachers, principals and administrators to right the wrongs of society.

It simply isn’t going to happen.

There are many things a school district can and must do to fight violence: It needs to maintain accurate records, report incidents to the appropriate people and provide a safe learning and teaching environment.

But by focusing solely on the school district, we absolve others of responsibility: Parents who aren’t providing — or aren’t capable of providing — proper parenting; faith-based leaders who may have to do more to step into the parental and spiritual breach; corporate leaders who, with advertising dollars, support some of the violent programs on television; politicians who reach for quick sound bites rather than explore substantive solutions.

Then there’s the respect issue.

When I visited schools as CEO, I would frequently ask teachers about the biggest change they’d seen in the last 20 to 30 years.

Most would respond that they were getting less respect from parents than they used to. And that was before today’s teacher-bashing from politicians who preach law and order but thrive on ripping down the symbol of authority and respect in the classroom.

SO WHAT’S THE solution?

If I knew, I would’ve fixed the problem when that House report got dumped in my lap. But perhaps we’d be better off if, rather than suggesting putting armed city police in the schools or other quick fixes, our city leaders acknowledged that they don’t know the answers either.

Maybe it’s time for them to lead us all back to school, and engage us in an honest conversation to see if together we can’t come up with some solutions that make these newspaper exposes a thing of the past.

Phil Goldsmith writes “The Gold Standard” column for It’s Our Money ( He was head of the school district in 2000-2001.  This piece was originally published in the Philadelphia Daily News.


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