District policies fail to provide a clear and consistent framework for preventing and resolving intergroup conflicts and these policies are neither uniformly implemented, nor clearly communicated.
A common complaint raised at most hearings was that District officials, as well as school administrators, teachers, and other staff, ignored underlying intergroup tensions, did not seriously consider bias as the root cause of specific outbreaks of violence, and failed to respond appropriately. As one community advocate shared with us, "The September 2010 violence at Bok High School in which two Asian youths were sent to the emergency room after being assaulted by at least 10 fellow students...is a sobering reminder of how far we need to go in the District. Initially, again, in that situation, the District was quick to rule out racial bias and instead declared the incident was hazing, even though no other students at the school had been allegedly hazed."
The District has a number of policies and programs in place that are designed to end intergroup conflicts, notably Policy 102, which relates to multi-racial, multi-cultural and gender education, and newly-adopted Policies 248 and 249, which address harassment and bullying. However, there seems to be a disconnect between these policies and what happens in the schools on a daily basis. (These policies can be found on the District's website.)
Inconsistent implementation of these policies and poor communication regarding them have confused parents, teachers and students about what events involving intergroup conflicts can and must be reported to the District, how those events can be reported, and how schools should respond.
As a community advocate told us, "Many parents have talked about how some things are considered harassment, other things are not. So we need a better harassment policy. There's no indication on the harassment policy whether a student or an individual can even say whether they feel like they've been a victim of a bias crime, and I think that's a very important thing to add to the school district's bias and harassment policy."
Reporting structures in particular seemed unclear. Witnesses spoke of incidents that were never reported because victims did not understand their rights or did not know the procedures for reporting. One community advocate told us, "It's just about calling it what it is, and then addressing the problem. Someone was speaking about how the students are afraid to report or they don't feel empowered enough to report. It's a huge issue, right, because if it's not on record, and essentially in certain people's heads, it's not happening. So I've been doing my best to encourage students to report."
In addition to advocating for the need for revisions to the policies to enable the District to effectively resolve incidents based on intergroup conflicts, witnesses also asserted that there are problems with the policies' implementation. As a high school teacher told us, "Policy 102—the policy on multicultural, multiracial gender education—is a very progressive, very comprehensive policy that we have on our side here in Philadelphia. The policy is wonderful. The implementation is missing... When I first expressed interest in my school in leading a GSA [Gay/Straight Alliance], they went, 'Oh, you can be the Policy 102 guy so that we are meeting our responsibilities and fulfilling Policy 102.' And so I am trying to do that as I can, but it's not a systematic thing."
A high school teacher talked about the impact the lack of implementation and clarity about reporting violations has had on students: "We noticed that they [LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) students] had a huge number of suspensions and discipline issues. And if you could really take a look at it, it's because they're defending themselves. They're being bullied and they retaliate physically. And there's no support system that they can go to and complain about these issues."
Witnesses described wide variation among different schools' disciplinary approaches, their implementation of district curricula related to multicultural education, and their efforts to eliminate intergroup conflicts. They asserted that some of that variation could be attributed to changes in District organization (the dismantling of offices that had authority over policy implementation), staff turnover, and the lack of well-publicized policy and procedures.
One education advocate reminded us, "Several years ago, the central administration of the School District included an Office of Integration and Intergroup Relations. Its mission was to provide materials about how to promote ethnic harmony within the classroom and within the school. I don't recall when or why the office was disbanded, but I do know that several years ago, the current Office of Health and Physical Education was asked to develop lesson plans and teachers' guides for every grade to address these issues. It is not clear whether these materials are currently in use."
Because teachers and staff lack training regarding intergroup conflicts, they sometimes exacerbate intergroup tensions. Although witnesses praised the schools where they saw adults helping young people prevent and resolve intergroup conflicts, the Commission heard stories of schools in which the adults in charge did not understand what constitutes unacceptable group-based verbal or physical aggression, or they felt powerless or unaware of how they should respond to students' destructive behavior.
One elementary school student, a recent immigrant, wrote in a statement read by a community activist, "One boy, he say that my mom is dumb and crazy and said that bad word, but I told the teacher. And he said, 'Ignore it.' and I say, 'Sure.'" Another older student, a freshman, testified, "The counselors, they said, all we can do is tell you to stay away from that certain student or get transferred or something. I shouldn't have to get transferred not to get beat up by some kids at school." A representative from a community-based organization shared a similar perspective: "The teachers are not sensitive to bullying when kids are being teased. The teacher may say, 'Oh go find another African kid to play with.'"
Staff sometimes exhibit insensitivity and bias themselves, as one teacher told us, "Last year there was a couple [of] faculty members and I who brought up the issue of homophobia in our school... From my own experience, I think it's a huge problem in our school, not just among students, but also my biggest issue is homophobia is used as a way of correcting behavior. Like, if two boys are fighting, the administrator might say, 'What would people think if you're touching another boy like that?'"
The same teacher who had conducted a survey about LGBTQ issues in her school told us, "I would like training, personally. I would like training for myself on how to bring up issues in class. Being a math teacher, it's kind of hard to interrupt a class and, you know, just kind of talk with students. 'Okay, why were you using the "F" word? Why is that hateful, why is that inappropriate now?' I mean I do stop and I do have conversations, but I don't think that my own thoughts are necessarily the most appropriate way to address those kind of things."
One education activist spoke to the heart of the matter regarding the role of adults in creating a school community that insists that everyone respect and value difference: "Urging students to engage with kids from different backgrounds than their own is unlikely to have much credibility when the kids do not see the faculty, staff and administrators crossing ethnic boundaries themselves. Every school needs a principal who knows how to build community among adults of varied backgrounds, and who interacts with students, their parents and community leaders."
Throughout the hearings, parents, students and community activists were clear: they want District officials and school staff to provide strong, consistent, moral leadership and to engage with students, parents, and community members in addressing the intolerance and ignorance that lie at the heart of intergroup discord and violent behavior.