Wednesday, March 26, 2008

As violence flares in schools, Street is a man of few words

Mayor Street inspected the troops at the 12th Police District roll call for the cameras yesterday afternoon and announced a plan to flood the streets of violence-plagued Southwest Philadelphia with officers and social services.
What Street did not mention, until asked by a reporter, was the recent rash of violence inside city schools.

"We are going to be very aggressive. . . . When you make things better in the community, you have an impact on children and violence," he said in response.

Before yesterday, Street had made few, if any, public comments about school mayhem since a pair of students broke a teacher's neck at Germantown High School nearly three weeks ago.

This week, students assaulted at least four teachers in district schools, and there were seven attacks at West Philadelphia High alone over the last 10 school days. The issue has dominated nightly newscasts and appeared on newspaper front pages.

The mayor's relative silence on the issue of battered teachers stands in stark contrast to the badgering he gave schools chief Paul Vallas late last year over the district's $73.3 million budget deficit.

Then, Street spent nearly 14 hours over four days sitting in the front row during public hearings on the fiscal problems, interjecting his criticisms. He also testified before City Council on the issue.

In some ways, aides say, the disparity arises from Street's leadership style: He's no Rudolph Giuliani-style tub-thumper, preferring to tinker with the machinery of government rather than exhort the public - and grab headlines - through the mass media.

The Street administration has launched a $3 million program to hire more truancy officers and also is establishing 12 curfew centers that will give youths safe havens from the streets. Education Secretary Jacqueline Barnett also participated in a March 6 meeting with Vallas and Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson that spelled out a tough new security policy for schools.

"The mayor takes a systems approach," Barnett said. "For him it's how do you get at the root of the chronic social issues we have. He's absolutely passionate about it."

But some continue to wish Street displayed that fervor more often in public.

"The mayor can use that bully pulpit for folks to rally around," said State Rep. Dwight Evans, a candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary, who has developed programs in Harrisburg to combat youth violence.

"Neither the school district nor the city government can do it by themselves," Evans said, adding that Street deserves credit for some of his policies. "In my view, the mayor can speak to the issue, to say we've all got to be responsible for the schools."

Street has often clashed with Vallas since Harrisburg took over the school district in a 2001 deal that brought more state funding. State control constrains the mayor's ability to act, but there could be better coordination, some say.

"I've been on six committees, urging more collaboration between schools and the city," said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth. "Everybody talks the talk, but it's hard. We need to get the resources there and really do require the coordination, the city and the schools really coordinating their resources and implementing plans that make sense."

Evans said "better relationships" among the mayor, the police commissioner, and the schools chief would help, adding that a mayor with a big-picture perspective could highlight the need for more parental responsibility and help support that.

And Ellen Green-Ceisler, the consultant who produced a study finding disarray in the school discipline system, said that the mayor could have a huge impact by ruthlessly assessing the multiple contracts the city has with nonprofits to provide social services in the schools.

"Who's monitoring these contracts - are they any good?" Green-Ceisler said. "I didn't see enough evaluation of that. . . . With the limited resources, we absolutely can't afford to have these contracts going to programs that are not working."

One point of contention between the school leadership and Street is unlikely to change. Vallas has said he would like to put armed Philadelphia police officers at district high schools, but Street has rebuffed the idea.

Currently, only school district police are stationed in school buildings. The officers have arrest powers but no guns.

Even in the wake of a rash of violence in city public schools, Barnett, Street's secretary of education, said revisiting the issue was a nonstarter.

"The administration will not consider armed officers in schools," Barnett said.

Street's position has been that guns are not an appropriate deterrent, and that parents do not want armed officers around their children. Johnson has agreed, saying he does not want to make school buildings "armed penitentiaries."

Some large districts, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, have armed officers in schools. And some smaller ones - especially those that have faced violence - make the same decision. Locally, Camden and Chester are examples.

Barnett said the issue also needs to be examined in context of the students' complex home lives.

"It is never acceptable to strike or attempt to harm a teacher, but we need to be mindful of some of the emotional baggage students are coming to school with," she said.