C.R. Robinson understands the dangers and consequences of school violence.
He has to.
As the parent of two children in Philadelphia’s public school system, Robinson faces the daily dilemma of teaching his sons to focus on schoolwork while avoiding schoolyard fights, classroom bullies and, in some communities, stray bullets.
It’s a dilemma many parents face, especially in urban cities like Philadelphia. And it used to be a dilemma faced mainly by parents of middle and high school students.
With alarming frequency, more elementary school parents are struggling to keep their children’s eyes open wide to the ABC’s of life while preparing them to face the adult realities of violence, conflict and even death.
Most city elementary schools report low incidents of violence, many as low as 0.9 incidents per 100 students in a year, district data shows. But other elementary schools show a steady increase of serious violence, including assaults, robberies and weapons offenses, the district reports.
At Anna B. Pratt Elementary School in North Philadelphia, incidents of serious violence during the school year jumped from 6 incidents in 2005-2006 to 29 incidents in 2009-2010. At William H. Harrison Elementary School, also in North Philadelphia, incidents of violence spiked from 10 incidents in 2005-2006 to 22 incidents in 2009-2010. At the Add B. Anderson Elementary School in West Philadelphia, violent incidents hit a high of 45 incidents in 2009-2010, up from 13 incidents in 2005-2006.
As the 2012-2013 school year gets under way, district officials are unveiling a new student code of conduct to reduce incidents of violence at all of its schools.
But school officials, parents and community leaders agree: reducing school violence is a collaborative effort, not the job of a single school or parent.
“As an institution, we are limited in what we can do. We have to be conscious of where violence starts and where it ends,” said Christopher Johnson, deputy for school climate and culture with the district.
“We talk about violence in our schools, but many times we’re not focusing on the whole issue, which is violence in our communities,” Johnson said.
The district’s code of conduct, updated this year, includes harsher penalties for combative students and imposes a zero tolerance policy for students with disruptive behaviors. Penalties include in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, transfers to disciplinary schools and expulsion from the district, depending on the severity.
Threatening a student or staff member, for example, is an immediate out-of-school suspension.
This year, the district’s student code also extends to a students’ behavior to and from school. This provision addresses incidents of violence on SEPTA, or involving afterschool flash mobs, officials said.
Students who commit serious crimes such as robbery, assault or sexual offences also will be reported to police and charged under state law, according to the code.
As a part of the district’s prevention strategy, each student must sign his or her conduct manual, which is then co-signed by the students’ parents and district administrators. The co-signatures guarantee that everyone understands what is expected and is held accountable when violations occur, officials said.
But the district understands its conduct code is only one piece in the anti-violence puzzle.
“We need to get at the heart of disruptive behavior and find different ways to support children,” said Gregory Shannon, deputy for hearings and expulsions with the district.
“We can’t arrest and suspend our way out of these challenges,” Shannon said. It becomes incumbent upon us as a district to reach out to parents, civic leaders and as many community stakeholders as we can. Only when we do that in a collective can we get any success.”
As part of its collaborative focus, district officials are requiring all school principals this year to engage in a process of community mapping, in which principals identify business owners, civic organizations, community leaders and stakeholders in each community and create community-school partnerships with those entities.
Although many schools have fostered those relationships on their own, the district is now requiring all schools to map community partnerships. The district understands that those partnerships are essential — no longer optional — for schools to be successful, Shannon said.
The district also is implementing more alternative methods of prevention, Shannon added. Instead of putting more focus on negative consequences that occur when students do wrong, the district is doing more to reinforce positive behavior when students do the right thing.
“We want to come up with three or four norms. Be bright! Be on time! Be respectful! We want to be able to model good behavior and reward students for following the guidelines we set up for them. We have to do more to reinforce positive behavior, instead of simply punishing bad behavior,” Shannon said.
Finally, the district plans to do more to with its Parent University program, in which the district offers classes and workshops to help parents support their children.
“I’m hoping people will begin to see that this urgent,” Shannon said of the need for school and community partnerships.
New superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr. underscored the importance of collaboration during a speech at the district’s 2012 safety summit, which convened parents, teachers and school administrators to address safety issues at city schools.
“Sometimes we confuse students’ cries for help with behavioral problems,” Hite informed the group.
“Sometimes, that angry look, that stare, that inappropriate response is a cry for help, more so than anything else. It’s really important for us to recognize the importance of how do we establish those types of relationships that make sure that we’re able to talk through some of those [bad behavior signs] and not always result in some consequence.”
Hite, too, stressed prevention over punishment.
“We can’t arrest or suspend our way to safer schools. [School safety] is a result of climates, environments and cultures that are established between the adults and the young people we serve. As leaders, the work starts with us.”
But while the district races to implement policies and procedures, many parents find they can wait for the district to get things right and are finding ways to help their children learn to fight back at violence and bullying.
Tyra Dawson, a parent of two elementary school students at Grover Cleveland School, said the best way to shield children from violence is to spot the signs before violence erupts.
“The first thing I focus on is communication. I’m constantly asking my children, ‘What happened at school today? How are you and your friends getting along.’ Being able to see things before they happen is critical. Children don’t always know how to spot those early signs of conflict. But if I can help them spot them, and then alert teachers and parents to keep their eyes on certain situations, that’s a way to prevent fights and spot bullying,” Dawson said.
C.R. Robinson’s son, Sekou, a 5th grader at Grover Cleveland, has an easy way to stay out of trouble.
“I think about my dad taking stuff from me,” he said, smiling at thoughts of playing his video games and remembering his sadness when his father takes them away.
Sekou said he tries to stay away from violence and bullies, but that it’s tough when his teachers don’t do anything to stop problems.
“Sometimes I tell my teachers, but they don’t do anything.” He said teachers have to do more to take the small problems seriously before they escalate into bigger problems.
As C.R. Robinson settles into the 2012-2013 school year, he’s hopeful that his and other children won’t have to struggle with fights and bullying, especially in the early grades.
“You send your children to school with the attitude that this is your right [to get an education.] But even in the early grades now, physical strength is valued over brain smarts. If your kids don’t fight back, they’re labeled a punk. I teach my kids that there’s no value to violence, because people who live that way eventually get locked up. But I also teach my kids they have to be stronger, not with their fists, but with their minds.”