There has been much concern recently about violence in the Philadelphia public schools. Having spent more than thirty-five, generally worthwhile, even enjoyable, years of my life in the Philadelphia public schools, both as student and teacher, I can assure you that violence in the schools is not the problem. There has always been some violence, often very extreme, in some schools. The basic problem is victimization.
In reality, the School District of Philadelphia, by means of its policies and practices, supports and protects those students who have developed into habitual predators. The victims are neglected. Coverup is standard practice. The violence that has erupted so vehemently in recent months is, as often as not, the attempt of victims to take back some control over their bodies and their personal dignity from the predators the schools pretend are not there. Not everyone who carries a knife is a predator. Not everyone who gets stabbed is a victim.
Kids are smart. If they learn in school that bullying or other forms of predation are tolerated, then it is only reasonable for them to choose the benefits of predation over the costs of being a victim. Habitual predators tend to be the smartest as well as the most daring kids in any school. In Philadelphia Public schools habitual predators are treated in a way that makes them indistinguishable from the great majority of victims. The focus on "violence" muddles the distinction between habitual predator and victim, since it pays no attention to why a person has acted violently. Second, much predation is ignored, or explained away as "playing around." "He wasn't assaulting her, he was just playing around."
A common way of covering up the problem is to give predators status in some special program. But this lets other students know that they are "protected." So it makes their predation much more efficient, because now they need use less overt force to intimidate students who might fight back. The habitual predator who is smart enough to become a member of a sports team, a student committee or a "conflict reduction group" has it made. Sports can turn a "problem student" around. But not if they serve merely as camouflage.
I learned recently of a child who, viciously and continually harassed at school, hanged himself. (A disciplinarian at a city high school confided to me that suicide threats by students occur by the thousands each year.) To call his suicide a tragedy is to belittle it. It is an abomination. I would bet that there were a dozen people in his school who knew of his victimization, who saw it develop over time. They did nothing about it.
Imagine that, teachers and administrators who did nothing about it! Why was that? Because it is School District practice to misinform its teachers and administrators as to what they may do to intervene in such situations! School staff who intervene in violent situations as Pennsylvania School law permits may receive disciplinary suspensions (and loss of pay) by the School Board.
Most kids who are victimized don't kill themselves. Instead, they cut school, they become sullen and uninterested, or they bring in weapons. Every smart predator knows better than to bring a weapon to school. What Mafia don ever gets caught with a smoking gun in his hand?
On Friday, December 4th, 1992 Superintendent Clayton convened high school principals to discuss "dealing with" school violence. But focusing on violence does not address the problem. Any action taken on that basis will likely punish victim more than predator. The point is to reduce the rewards for predation and to support those most likely to be victimized.
The schools have to teach students not only that the costs of predation outweigh its benefits, but that victims will be listened to and supported. And they teach it, not by jawboning Rambo-esque threats or Pollyanna-ish pleas but by showing their commitment in the day-in, day-out practice of schooling.
Things seem to have cooled down in recent weeks. Is this an improvement? Or is it more of the kind of coverup school officials admitted to in City Council hearings where they estimated that more than 50% of violent incidents did not get reported? My teacher friends still on the job still report the same problems. The press seems generally to have lost interest.
The underlying problem is that school districts in Pennsylvania have recently come to enjoy a kind of legal immunity from lawsuit rare in other states. The normal duties of care demanded of teachers and administrators have been basically done away with. So far as preventing victimization in the schools is concerned, the basic rule for educators is, Do nothing and you can't be sued!. Little wonder such problems are covered up. Little wonder also that parents opt out of the public schools when they can! More than 40% of children attending Catholic parochial schools in the inner city are not Catholic!
Maybe there are some school officials around the city just waiting for this to blow over -- another storm to be weathered that merely rocks the solid vessel of their tenure. They may be the first to tell you what "can't be done" to deal systematically with the problem of victimization. They speak from ignorance. Or lack of leadership ability. But the students are telling us that something can be done. A knife or a gun can change the hidden curriculum that the School District has offered for so many years. What has this hidden curriculum been? Two simple rules. Predators, be careful! Victims, be quiet!