Danger zone

Four North­east Philly schools are on a fed­er­ally man­dated ‘per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous’ list, but school ad­min­is­trat­ors say the situ­ation’s not as bad as it looks.

Shawn McGuigan, prin­cip­al of Fels High School, poses for a photo on Wed­nes­day, Au­gust 10 in his of­fice. Kev­in Cook/for the Times

Four North­east Phil­adelphia pub­lic high schools are on the state’s new­est list of “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous schools.”

The schools aren’t new to the fed­er­ally man­dated list, which dates to the early days of the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and a series of na­tion­al edu­ca­tion ini­ti­at­ives. North­east High is back on the list, hav­ing been off it dur­ing the last school year. The Cottman Av­en­ue school last ap­peared on the 2009-10 break­down. Frank­ford, Lin­coln and Fels made the Pennsylvania list this year, too, but they’ve been on it for sev­er­al years. 

School ad­min­is­trat­ors say “the per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous” la­bel is mis­lead­ing. In in­ter­views last week, they in­sisted that their schools really are safe and that some of the same stat­ist­ics that put their build­ings on the list ac­tu­ally demon­strate the tight­ness of school se­cur­ity.

The ad­min­is­trat­ors also said that crimes com­mit­ted off school grounds are coun­ted against them. And even the Pennsylvania De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion, in its ex­plan­a­tion of the list, com­ments that school is still one of the safest places for kids to be.

Al­though the list, which was re­leased Oct. 18, is com­piled statewide, it in­cludes just 12 schools — all of them in Phil­adelphia. No oth­ers in Pennsylvania’s 500 school dis­tricts fit the state’s “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous” cri­ter­ia, said Tim Eller, a spokes­man for the state edu­ca­tion de­part­ment.

No oth­er school dis­trict — not even Pitt­s­burgh, Har­ris­burg, Wilkes-Barre, Scrant­on or Chester — has ever had a school on the list. There might be some small com­fort for the Phil­adelphia school dis­trict this year in that there are sev­en few­er Philly schools on the new list than there were on last year’s — 19 were de­clared “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous” — and just less than half of the 25 city schools on the 2009-10 run­down.

Al­though the count is lower this year, the num­ber of North­east Philly schools on it is high­er. North­east Phil­adelphia, which is home to roughly a quarter of the city’s pop­u­la­tion, is home — stat­ist­ic­ally, at least — to a third of the state’s most dan­ger­ous schools.

It’s not a rot­ten repu­ta­tion that puts a school on the list, nor a good one that keeps a school off it. The tag “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous” is defined by school stat­ist­ics — on weapons, vi­ol­ence and ar­rests. It’s the num­ber of dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents with­in three strata of stu­dent pop­u­la­tions, Eller said dur­ing an Oct. 18 in­ter­view.

If five in­cid­ents clas­si­fied as dan­ger­ous oc­cur in a school with an en­roll­ment of 250 or less, that school is labeled “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous.” If the num­ber of in­cid­ents is equi­val­ent to 2 per­cent of a school en­roll­ment between 251 and 1,000 stu­dents, the school is on the list. So, if a school has 1,000 stu­dents, 20 dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents put it on the state list. If 20 or more dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents oc­cur in a school that has more than 1,000 kids, it’s on the list, too.

North­east, Lin­coln, Fels and Frank­ford have stu­dent pop­u­la­tions of more than 1,000. North­east, the largest, has more than 3,000. George Wash­ing­ton High School, which isn’t on the list, has more than 1,500 stu­dents.

Don­ald An­ti­coli, Lin­coln’s prin­cip­al, said the cri­ter­ia that at­tach the “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous” la­bel to a school are skewed against the lar­ger schools. The great­er the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, the more in­cid­ents might oc­cur. If the 2 per­cent stand­ard were ap­plied to Lin­coln, which has more than 1,700 stu­dents, the school wouldn’t be on the list, he said.

Be­sides that, An­ti­coli said, Pennsylvania’s defin­i­tion of what con­sti­tutes a dan­ger­ous in­cid­ent is far broad­er than those of oth­er states. In a 2004 story, the North­east Times re­por­ted that New York City, with a school sys­tem of more than a mil­lion stu­dents, lis­ted no schools on the state’s “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous” rank­ings.


Un­der fed­er­al law, each state may es­tab­lish the cri­ter­ia to clas­si­fy a school in­cid­ent as dan­ger­ous. Loc­al school ad­min­is­trat­ors com­men­ted last week that Pennsylvania’s stand­ards are very broad. 

Fights that lead to ar­rests, at­tempts to bring weapons in­to school, and push­ing a teach­er are ex­amples of dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents.

Of course, rapes and hom­icides are auto­mat­ics for the list. However, one quirky as­pect is that a school with 1,000 stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to Pennsylvania’s school code, could have up to 19 murders a year, year after year, and not make the per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous list if no oth­er dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents are re­por­ted. On the oth­er hand, a school with an identic­al en­roll­ment that has 22 dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents — but none as ser­i­ous as hom­icide — would be on the list.

North­east High has more than 3,000 stu­dents, and it had 22 dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents dur­ing the past school year, ac­cord­ing to Sgt. James Pul­li­am of the school dis­trict po­lice. Sev­en of those in­cid­ents, said Pul­li­am, res­ul­ted from weapons found on kids as they entered the school.

Those weapons didn’t get in­to the build­ing, said prin­cip­al Linda Car­roll, but they have to be logged by North­east High and coun­ted as dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents. Sub­tract them from the school’s num­bers and North­east is off the list, she said. 

ldquo;A weapon is not an in­cid­ent,” the prin­cip­al said. “You stop it be­fore it comes in, it shouldn’t be a dan­ger­ous in­cid­ent.”

Also sub­tract the six crimes in­volving stu­dents that had oc­curred off school grounds — one as far away as Bustleton Av­en­ue — and North­east High’s count of dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents drops the school off the list, Pul­li­am and Car­roll said dur­ing an in­ter­view at the school last Fri­day. But those away-from-school in­cid­ents must be coun­ted if they in­volve stu­dents on their way to or from school, the prin­cip­al said.

As far as Car­roll is con­cerned, those scen­ari­os high­light a flawed for­mula when de­term­in­ing wheth­er a school is per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous.

“It’s a re­l­at­ively crude stand­ard of­ten­times,” said Paul So­col­ar, ed­it­or of the Note­book, an in­de­pend­ent pub­lic­a­tion that fo­cuses on is­sues with­in Phil­adelphia’s pub­lic schools.            

There’s a mat­ter of ac­cur­acy in re­port­ing, too.

School of­fi­cials re­port what hap­pens in their build­ings. If a prin­cip­al is di­li­gent in re­port­ing in­cid­ents to the school dis­trict, his school could wind up on the state list. If the prin­cip­al is lax, the school stays off it.

ldquo;The school dis­trict,” said So­col­ar, “is plagued by in­con­sist­ent re­port­ing around safety is­sues and school vi­ol­ence.”

A school that is the most di­li­gent about re­port­ing any of­fense can be un­fairly singled out, he said.    

One per­son, most likely a North­east High staff mem­ber, an­onym­ously pos­ted on Note­book’s blog last week to ex­press his or her feel­ings about the school’s in­clu­sion on this year’s list.

“I find it very frus­trat­ing that NE con­tin­ues to be on that list. While we do have ser­i­ous in­cid­ents, we are the biggest school in the dis­trict and our in­cid­ent/stu­dent ra­tio is cer­tainly not in the per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous realm,” the per­son wrote. “I nev­er have any fear in our hall­ways. Some of our stu­dents are a bit edgy and there are the typ­ic­al ‘fight­ers,’ but really our hall­ways are pretty calm.”

Car­roll, the North­east prin­cip­al, thinks that the list’s very name, “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous,” is of­fens­ive — to the stu­dents, fac­ulty, staff and alumni — and causes the pub­lic to be­lieve that every­one is in an un­safe school.

So­col­ar said the gen­er­al pub­lic takes the list’s name at face value.

“It’s the op­pos­ite of the ‘Good House­keep­ing seal,’” he said.


The School Dis­trict of Phil­adelphia lists each school’s “ser­i­ous in­cid­ents,” in­volving as­saults, drugs, weapons and thefts, on its Web site.

However, the most re­cent stat­ist­ics on the site are from the 2009-10 aca­dem­ic year, which, again, was the peri­od when 25 Phil­adelphia schools were on the list.

The new list is based on stats from the 2010-11 school year, but those num­bers are not yet on the school dis­trict’s Web site.

Capt. Mi­chael Mc­Car­rick, whose 2nd Po­lice Dis­trict is home to Fels and North­east high schools, said last week that in­cid­ents in the two schools are drop­ping.

At Fels, which has a new prin­cip­al, ar­rests had been nu­mer­ous in the past, but the school is much calmer this year, he said.

“It seems to have done a one-eighty,” the cap­tain ad­ded.

Young­sters who bring weapons to the schools typ­ic­ally are flagged by met­al de­tect­ors as they enter the build­ings. Some girls found out they could hurt oth­ers with bleach —they’re get­ting caught try­ing to con­ceal it in small per­fume bottles, Mc­Car­rick said.

What causes the vi­ol­ence de­pends on the school. At Fels, which is more of a neigh­bor­hood school than North­east, he said, it seems to be deep-seated neigh­bor­hood is­sues that erupt in and out­side school.

ldquo;I can trace fif­teen Sum­mer­dale as­saults to two girls fight­ing over one guy,” the 2nd dis­trict’s com­mand­er said.

Shawn McGuigan, the new prin­cip­al at Fels, said the Lang­don Street school has a pro­hib­i­tion list so kids know what they may or may not bring in­to the build­ing. Signs moun­ted at en­trances re­mind stu­dents what has been banned. To com­bat the use of bleach as a weapon, policy pro­hib­its stu­dents from en­ter­ing the build­ing with li­quids in open bottles. 

A pair of brass knuckles was among weapons con­fis­cated this year. Some kids who bring weapons like knives or razors tend to be stu­dents who are be­ing bul­lied, the prin­cip­al said, and they think they’re mak­ing them­selves safer.

There have been four ar­rests at Fels so far this year, McGuigan said. In ad­di­tion, some kids have been ar­res­ted on war­rants, he ad­ded.

McGuigan said Fels is di­li­gent about re­port­ing every in­cid­ent.

“If it puts me on the list, it puts me on the list,” he said. 

North­east’s prin­cip­al, Car­roll, put it an­oth­er way: If mak­ing the school safe causes it to be labeled as “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous,” she’ll live with it.

McGuigan said ad­min­is­trat­ors from vari­ous schools have monthly meet­ings and re­ceive tips to help make their schools safer.

“I think we’ve made a hell of an im­prove­ment,” he said dur­ing an Oct. 20 phone in­ter­view.

At Lin­coln, An­ti­coli said his high school now has more guid­ance coun­selors and so­cial work­ers to ad­vise and talk to stu­dents. The strategy also can help de­fuse any po­ten­tial prob­lems.

Al­though the state’s list of per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous schools was form­ally re­leased last week, most ad­min­is­trat­ors have been aware of the res­ults since Au­gust, said Eller, the state edu­ca­tion de­part­ment spokes­man. Par­ents and guard­i­ans of chil­dren in per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous schools have the right to re­quest trans­fers to oth­er schools. Those schools must not be on the dan­ger­ous list; they also must be schools that have shown av­er­age yearly aca­dem­ic pro­gress, Eller said.

Des­pite the rank­ings of their own schools on the list, not many young­sters have sought to trans­fer else­where, An­ti­coli, Car­roll and McGuigan said.

Be­sides, Car­roll said, the stand­ard ap­plied to trans­fers doesn’t really al­low for a lot of choice.

“Where are they go­ing to go?” she asked. ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

How dan­ger­ous?

One part of the fed­er­al No Child Left Be­hind Act of 2001 re­quires states that re­ceive fed­er­al funds to es­tab­lish edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards to identi­fy per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous schools and policies that al­low stu­dents to trans­fer out of those schools.

On its Web site, the Pennsylvania De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion com­ments on the mean­ing of “per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous” and how it is de­term­ined:

ldquo;The pur­pose of the stand­ards is to identi­fy those schools that have a re­cord of school safety prob­lems so that the prob­lems will be ad­dressed and cor­rec­ted to keep stu­dents safe. The iden­ti­fic­a­tion of cer­tain schools as ‘per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous’ does not change the fact that, for most chil­dren, school is one of the safest places for them to be. But it also re­cog­nizes that some schools need to take ser­i­ous steps in or­der to make their schools safer.

ldquo;The de­part­ment’s stand­ards define a per­sist­ently dan­ger­ous school as any pub­lic ele­ment­ary, sec­ond­ary or charter school that meets any of the fol­low­ing cri­ter­ia in the most re­cent school year, and in one ad­di­tion­al year of the two years pri­or to the most re­cent school year:

1. For a school whose en­roll­ment is 250 or less, at least five dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents;

2.  For a school whose en­roll­ment is 251 to 1000, a num­ber of dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents that rep­res­ents at least 2 per­cent of the school’s en­roll­ment; or

3.  For a school whose en­roll­ment is over 1000, 20 or more dan­ger­ous in­cid­ents.

ldquo;A dan­ger­ous in­cid­ent is defined as a weapons-pos­ses­sion in­cid­ent res­ult­ing in ar­rest (guns, knives or oth­er weapons) or a vi­ol­ent in­cid­ent res­ult­ing in ar­rest (hom­icide, kid­nap­ping, rob­bery, sexu­al of­fenses and as­saults) as re­por­ted on the Vi­ol­ence and Weapons Pos­ses­sion Re­port (PDE-360), which school dis­tricts file each   year.” ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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