Commission hears of violence in many city schools

Kristen A. Graham (Philly Inquirer)
Jan. 29, 2010

PHILADELPHIA – Violence is a problem not just at South Philadelphia High but also at schools around the city, several parents, teachers, and residents told the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations last night.

It’s particularly acute at Audenried High School in Grays Ferry, where neighborhood violence and gang activity has been spilling over into classrooms, they said.

English teacher Brynn Keller said that last week 20 teenagers had burst into her room and attacked a female student. A male classmate dropped to the floor to protect her with his body.

“After calling for security, there was nothing I could do other than stand by and watch,” Keller said, holding back tears in testimony to the commission, which held the first of 11 hearings on school violence. “There is little keeping our students safe within our school’s walls.”

Gangs of students roam the hallways, Audenried teachers said. There is no firm discipline policy, and removing problem students is difficult. The building, which opened last year at 33d and Tasker Streets, is too large for the security staff to monitor, and the school had its third lockdown of the year last week, they said.

“Our school has made repeated pleas to the school district for help, but those pleas have gone unheeded,” Keller said.

John Frangipani, district chief of school operations, said that the district had been monitoring the trouble at Audenried and that as of Monday, a new school climate manager and more school police officers would be assigned there.

This week, Audenried was designated an Empowerment School, meaning it’s among the district’s worst performers and now entitled to more resources and guidance.

Frangipani, who attended the hearing, said the neighborhood violence had worsened the climate at the school, which accommodates only freshmen and sophomores.

Gang violence is a problem in the neighborhood, police said.

Last Friday, 18-year-old Tyree Parks, an athlete at South Philadelphia High, was gunned down while walking home from a game at Audenried, where he coached a youth basketball team.

“There’s always been issues in the South Philly schools, just because of the territorial divide in the neighborhood,” Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said. “You have a large number of youths in that area, a lot of poverty, and there are geographical factions that developed.”

He said police were working with the school district to look at ways to combat neighborhood violence more aggressively.

“We are doing the best we can to fight school violence,” Frangipani said.

Zorita Brown wept as she told the commission about a recent attack on her son at Audenried. The district did not notify her, she said.

“The vice principal told me, ‘We’re going to handle this, but don’t send your son to school tomorrow,’ ” Brown testified. “His life is in jeopardy. It’s not fair. He’s in 10th grade. He deserves better.”

The hearings were convened after Asian students said they were attacked by groups of mostly African American students at South Philadelphia High last month. Immigrant students said that violence against them was nothing new and that little had been done until the December attacks.

The commission, one of several taking action on racial violence, will hold 10 more hearings throughout the city and issue a report to the district. More than 100 people packed into the Guerin Recreation Center at 16th and Jackson Streets in South Philadelphia to testify or listen.

Karen Rose said her son, a student at George Washington Elementary in South Philadelphia, suffered a broken rib at the hands of another student during an after-school program.

“It was ignored,” Rose said. “For black children, they are discriminated against every day of their lives in the Philadelphia School District.”

Vu Le, a junior at Fels High in the Northeast, suffered a broken jaw at school in 2008.

At the time, “all they did was give me the chance to transfer to another school,” said Le, a Vietnamese immigrant who said things had improved at the school this year.

Debra Weiner, an education activist who advises the district and city, called on leaders to “end this multigenerational disgrace” of racial violence.

Schools cannot disown violence as a neighborhood problem, she said. Adults must take the lead.

“Adult attitudes and behaviors must be addressed if we expect them to be role models for ethnic harmony,” Weiner said.

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.

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