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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.” ••