Wednesday, March 26, 2008

West Philadelphia students speak out

It was a typical morning at West Philadelphia High School - students, bundled up against the cold and walking to class, pouring off buses and rushing into the imposing century-old building.
Among many, the topic of conversation yesterday was a recent uptick in violence and turmoil at the school and the removal of the principal.

On Wednesday, a student punched a nonteaching assistant in the face, the sixth assault in two weeks and at least the 17th so far this school year.

School staffers have been pushed, slapped, and struck with objects. Students have pulled staffers' hair and sprayed them with fire extinguishers.

Heading into school before the first bell, freshman Amber Moore described a school where students roam the hallways as they please.

"People just walk around, people don't go to class," she said, adding that her mother was concerned for her.

"There's not a lot of shooting, but there's a lot of fighting," said Moore, 15. "Somebody could get hurt. People just punching for no reason, and you could drop dead in the hallway."

She said she believed the school needed more security presence - school officers or Philadelphia police.

Like many students, Moore wasn't aware of a new district initiative, launched this week.

Students who assault teachers automatically face felony charges of aggravated assault, and will automatically face 10-day suspensions pending transfer to a disciplinary school.

"Kids feel like they can do anything, get away with anything," Moore said.

Harold Cheadle agreed with Moore's assessment of the West climate. "It's crazy," said Cheadle, 15, a sophomore. "People fight, they start fires."

Cheadle said two small fires had been set by students this week - one in a hallway, one in a science lab.

Albert Bichner, the district's deputy chief academic officer, said last night that another fire had been set at the school yesterday.

"That's a manifestation of anger," Bichner said of the fires.

On the same day as the most recent assault, West Philadelphia's principal, Clifton James, was removed and replaced by veterans Ozzie Wright, a former West Philadelphia principal and retired Army captain, and Ernestine Caldwell. Wright will focus on school climate and Caldwell on academic affairs.

Bichner said that James' removal and the most recent attack "generally aren't related." A decision had been made previously to reassign him at the end of the year, and Bichner said he decided to pull James this week because it would be more appropriate for a new principal to plan the school's budget and help coordinate construction of a new school.

He praised James but said it was time to move on.

"The reassignment is just a reassignment based on match of administrative acumen or administrative profile and the needs of a particular school. But Mr. James did wonderful things for West Philadelphia," Bichner said.

Bichner said he expected Wright's appointment to pay dividends soon.

"There's nobody better with school climate than Ozzie Wright. Ozzie knows this building inside and out, and he knows the community, and he's going to help stabilize the West Philadelphia community."

For Cheadle, the sophomore, it was a matter of adopting the proper perspective.

"It's still good and stuff - some of us do work," he said. "I just go in and do my work."

He said he was optimistic that Wright could help quell the violence.

"It's going to stop," Cheadle said confidently. "A new principal will help."

Many students were not so sure.

Sophomore Richard Washington, 16, said his family was attempting to get him transferred out of West, to Bartram High.

"It's crazy," he said. "The security guards sit there and say, 'Stop it,' but no one listens."

Cynthia Byrd is a senior and has seen things worsen during her four years at the school.

This week has been particularly tough, with the fires, new assaults, and then James' ouster. She said some students loyal to him reacted to the news with shouts.

"They were saying, 'We want Mr. James! We want Mr. James!' " said Byrd.

Student frustration is due to a lack of opportunities at West, she said.

"What would make it better? Better books. Better equipment," she said. "We don't have new things."

Despite the recent rash of incidents, opinion was mixed on the overall climate: A senior, rushing to beat the late bell, said things were fine. A group of boys said that violence against teachers was unacceptable, but that some adults provoked attack.

Many students said they were unaware of the new district policy calling for harsher penalties for students who attack adults and including the creation of a teacher-safety hotline.

Jasmine Lawrence, 18 and a senior, said there had been some improvement in student climate during her time at West.

"It had gotten better - when I was here earlier, it was really wild. You could walk out of school," Lawrence said.

Her friend Kyona Walker, 17 and a junior, said she thought things had gotten worse. She characterized the situation as "out of control."

Bullying is more prevalent, Walker said, and students are chafing under new, stricter rules brought in by James.

"They're trying to make it like a behavior school, and it's not," Walker said.

On his way into school, Musa Debnam had a brief, but biting, take on the situation.

"It's crazy now," said Debnam.

Bichner said that many in the community were watching the school closely.

"There's a lot of anxiety at West Philadelphia High School, and the climate isn't where anybody wants it to be right now," he said. "This is a little bit of a 'show me' decision. We have to show that this was a wise decision, that what we're doing for kids is going to benefit kids."

At Germantown High, where a teacher's neck was broken last month in an assault by a student, a fight between two female students drew police yesterday. The girls, ages 15 and 16, were charged with disorderly conduct, district officials said. One of the girls had Mace but did not use it.

The 15-year-old brother of the 16-year-old girl also was arrested after being found with four bags of marijuana, and a 21-year-old man was charged with trespassing when he was discovered watching the fight, which took place in a school hallway. District officials said yesterday they were unsure how the man got into the school. The incident took place about 1 p.m.

The students face suspension, district officials said.