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New policies spike safety stats

South Philadelphia High is being punished by the state, according to the school’s principal.

The reason? The faculty has been dutifully reporting violent incidents at the school, he says.

The storied high school was one of 27 public schools in Philadelphia labeled as "persistently dangerous" by the state Department of Education. It was the only high school in South Philly on the list.

Southern has been unfairly punished for its vigilance, contends its principal, David Strolle.

"This building is a safe environment," he said. "One of the reasons we feel it is safe is because we do report things."

The announcement came days before the school’s freshman orientation. Strolle said no parents of incoming students raised the issue.

The "persistently dangerous" label is based on several years of statistics. Strolle suggested that many schools avoided the list because they failed to report violations at their institutions before last year, when the School District of Philadelphia implemented policies that made such reporting mandatory.

Now principals "would be crazy not to report everything," Strolle said. At least one principal in the district was reportedly removed from his post because the district suspected he had been fudging his numbers.

Strolle does not regret his report-everything policy, nor does he feel Southern’s presence on the state list reflects poorly on his job as an administrator.

"The only way to deal with problems is to realize you do have them and address them," he said. "Sweeping them under the rug does not improve the safety of your school."

The Pennsylvania Department of Education released the names of 28 schools in the state — 27 in Philadelphia and one in Chester — that qualified as persistently dangerous two weeks ago.

Every state is required to compile such a list under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. It has been left to each state to define what the persistently dangerous label means.

For Pennsylvania’s 501 public school districts, schools are evaluated by the number of weapons arrests and violent incident arrests. Together, these are considered dangerous incidents.

If a school with at least 1,000 students exceeded 20 dangerous incidents last year and at least once in the two previous years, it was tagged as persistently dangerous.

Schools with enrollments between 251 and 1,000 students earned the label if the number of dangerous incidents was greater than 2 percent of the student population last year and once in the two previous years.

Schools not on the list are considered "safe public schools." Under the law, the district must let a student at a persistently dangerous school to transfer to a safe school.

As the state Department of Education released its list, it simultaneously discredited it. Secretary of Education Vicki L. Phillips said the list punished districts that have set strict safety standards.

Schools CEO Paul Vallas instituted a policy at the start of last school year making it mandatory for teachers and administrators to report all violent offenses to district headquarters. The district, in its own safety report released the day before the state’s, blames this for the 41-percent jump in serious incidents between last school year and 2001-02.

"We believe it is important for parents and communities to know that their schools are safe," Phillips said, "but this report is not yet a credible yardstick for determining the safety of children and schools."

South Philadelphia High, Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, was one of two local schools on the state list. The other was Vare Middle School, 24th and Snyder, which was converted into a charter school before the 2002-03 school year and placed under the management of Universal Companies.

Abdur-Rahim Islam, president and CEO of Universal, defended Vare’s reputation and the city’s other institutions classified as persistently dangerous.

"I know enough about these lists not to focus too much on it, but to focus really on what goes on in the schools," Islam said.

The faculty at Vare adheres to the school district’s code of conduct and mandatory reporting policies, said Islam. The staff also will experiment with alternative methods in dealing with disciplinary problems this year.

Universal is considering adding an in-house suspension program and Vare has hired a new principal with a "strong disciplinarian background," Islam said.

But most of the impending changes at Vare are designed to build character and strengthen the school community. The school will host several motivational speakers and plans to expand the student government and afterschool programs, said Islam.

The number of serious incidents reported citywide at public schools jumped from 5,129 in 2001-02 to 7,229 in 2002-03.

Dexter Green, the district’s director of school safety, agreed the increase has more to do with Philadelphia aggressively reporting incidents than declining discipline.

"We are going to continue to report and we are going to continue to remove violent students from our schools," Green said. "And when necessary, we are going to continue to arrest students that bring weapons and commit violent assaults."

Last year’s statistics, he said, provide an "accurate baseline of the problem" to evaluate the district in future years.

District officials, under Vallas’ orders, are creating school safety teams to work with each of the 27 schools on the state list and as many as 23 other schools determined to be teetering on chaos. A district official confirmed one of those schools to be Audenried High, 33rd and Tasker streets, but would not name any others. The district plans to construct a new building for Audenried within the next few years.

The safety teams will help increase the school police presence and provide academic support and social services. Another part of the plan will include the creation of Saturday detention programs, providing counseling for chronically disruptive students, increasing the number of truancy officers and creating "accommodation rooms," or classrooms designated for students who persistently misbehave.

The district also plans to get parents involved with school safety, Green said.

"Some of these weapons are coming into the schools at a younger and younger age," he said. "All parents have to do, in some cases, is check their children’s bookbags."

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