Our Schools are Far from Nonviolent: PSU’s Response to SDP Statement on Persistently Dangerous

The School District of Philadelphia announced yesterday that there are no Philadelphia schools on the state’s Persistently Dangerous Schools List. There has been a lot of work done to reduce violent incidents in school and build strong school communities and it shows in these changes. We also know that there is still a lot of work to be done. While these schools may no longer be “dangerous” in the way that the state defines that, they still pose a danger to the future of all of Philadelphia’s students by not providing them with the resources they need to be successful.

Since 2011, the Philadelphia Student Union, with our partners in the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools (including the Attic, the Mazzoni Center, Youth United for Change, the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project, Boat People SOS, Temple University’s Collaborative on Community Inclusion, and Philadelphia Freedom Schools) organized for years to push the School District of Philadelphia to include Restorative Practices in their discipline policies. We called on our allies at the Education Law Center and the ACLU, we worked through the District’s Safety and Engagement Committee, and guess what? We won. Ten district schools are now piloting a Restorative Practices model that will move disciplinary action away from suspension and towards healing relationships. Three of those schools, Sayre, Benjamin Franklin and South Philadelphia, are chapter schools of the Philadelphia Student Union. More importantly, we know that Restorative Practices works. At West Philadelphia High School (where Restorative Practices were implemented in 2007), violent acts and serious incidents were down 52% in 2007–2008 compared to 2006–2007.

We didn’t stop there. As CNS, we also fought for and won changes in the Code of Conduct, the School District’s guide to punishment. The new Code implemented a new discipline matrix that not only reduced the use of out-of-school suspensions for minor offenses, but also led the district to direct school police officers to stop responding to level 1 “student conduct offenses” such as “failure to follow classroom rule” and “public displays of affection.” These changes allow schools to be safer places for all students and steer the focus away from punitive measures. For years we have been fighting for these changes and we know that these programs, like Restorative Practices, are working.

However, a more complete transformation of our schools, from places where young people are criminalized to the positive and healing places they should be, has yet to be achieved. We hear a lot about violent incidents in our schools. The mainstream media paints images of public schools that are aggressively intimidating. We are forced to think, “How else will we control these students besides policing them into submission?” And yet, we rarely hear about the ways that the District can be violent towards young people. In Philly Student Union we define violence as “power that hurts people’s chances at survival.” Our School District is doing just that as an institution that systematically denies basic resources to already under-resourced communities. We can never expect our schools to be safe havens of learning if we treat them like warehouses to hold violent criminals.

All young people, regardless of their race, class and gender deserve a school in which they can flourish. By underfunding our schools for decades, the city and state have violently hurt all Philadelphia’s young peoples’ chances for success.

Rather than focusing on the interpersonal violence, which is propagated by overly policed buildings, we demand the district to focus on the institutional violence that grows each year when students are left with no counselors, support staff, supplies, or nurses. Having to worry about one’s own mental and physical health, future, and safety is an undue burden to place on the young people of Philadelphia. The depravation of basic needs is, in fact, a violent act. The young people of Philadelphia have been experiencing this type of violence for decades.

Superintendent Hite was quoted in the School District’s press release, “We are very proud of what our school communities continue to accomplish even with the limited resources they have.” We should not receive praise simply because we are making due. We should have every resource we need to have successful and full lives. We may no longer have any schools on the Persistently Dangerous List, but our schools are far from nonviolent.

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