Arlene Ackerman punks out on student violence.
In recent weeks, our area has produced newsmaking examples of school districts operating at polar ends of the disciplinary spectrum. From Lower Merion came the Alias -inspired case of sophomore Blake Robbins who was allegedly spied on through his Harriton High School-issued laptop as he enjoyed a box of Mike and Ikes (or a fistful of Quaaludes, depending on the source) in his bedroom. The same week, here in Center City, 150 schoolkids flash-mobbed the Gallery mall, causing fistfights, face-kicking and a rampage through Macy’s. This came after South Philadelphia High School’s December race-brawls, which pitted blacks against Asians and students against administrators.
The districts couldn’t be more different: affluent, nougat-white Lower Merion and poverty-wracked, melting-pot Philadelphia. As the Inquirer ’s Karen Heller noted last week, Lower Merion leads area districts in student expenditures ($21,663 per child); Philadelphia is near the bottom ($11,426). But what’s striking about the two districts, in considering the three incidents, is that school officials’ vigilance seems flipped: safe, wealthy Harriton, going to federally idiotic lengths to ensure good behavior and dangerous, poor Philadelphia, working just as hard to avoid concrete steps toward order.
With the Robbins’ lawsuit pending, only rumor and canned statements have illuminated Harriton’s laptop program. But at base, the case comes down to an administrator—perhaps Assistant Vice Principal Lindy Matsko, perhaps not—going much too far to bring discipline. This, in a school with a gleaming $100 million building, a student-teacher ratio of 10 to 1 and 16 AP courses from which to choose. It’s the type of school where a kid’s pill-popping might register as a crisis event. It’s the type of school where every transgression is seen by staff as another sign that things are going to hell.
In Philadelphia, where things actually are going to hell, one wishes for such melodramatic interest. Since early December, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has countered student violence with feeble posturing and hollow gestures. The problems she faces are infinitely worse than those in the suburbs, endlessly complicated and far more intractable. But in the wake of the chaos in South Philly and Center City, it’s become clear that the person to confront those problems will not be Superintendent Ackerman.
On Dec. 28—three weeks after South Philadelphia High made headlines— Philadelphia magazine ran a stinging profile of Ackerman, painting her as aloof and imperious.
On January 11, an Ackerman editorial in the Inquirer added “mawkish” and “vague” to the list of adjectives. Headlined “It’s everyone’s problem,” Ackerman made sensible points about school violence that added nothing to the conversation: “We need to take meaningful steps to provide a better sense of security for students,” she wrote. How will this be done? By changing “hearts and minds. We must give our children adult examples of respect, trust, and hope. We must show them how to resolve conflict, and how to embrace and learn from their differences.” Yes, but how? By recognizing that “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.” By the end of the piece, which ended with a bleating “Will you help me help our children?,” a queasy truth had surfaced: Ackerman, the person most responsible for addressing school violence, for controlling the mayhem, was handing us the reins. It was everyone’s problem to cope with; once divided, it became nobody’s to solve.
With such lack of leadership, it’s no surprise that students felt free to charge through Center City. “If you’re somewhere and you see a lot of people, it just triggers something. You just act wild. It’s fun,” Strawberry Mansion High School senior Deejay Walker told the Inquirer. In response to the riot, Ackerman stood behind a podium and lobbed forth the platitudes: “We must not only change [students’] behavior,” she said. “We must change their hearts and minds and give them hope.” This time, there were some specifics, including a “reshaping” of relations between students and school police, and a blue-ribbon panel to “examine and make recommendations about violence.” Such determination must have given Deejay Walker great pause.
The causes of urban school violence run deep; their solutions will be proportionally complex. And at best, the issue will likely prove only manageable, not fully solvable. But Ackerman has shown she is not up to even this. If the School Reform Commission is concerned by her flailing public detachment, it should begin the search for her replacement. Ideally, that person would have a near-maniacal eagerness to confront problem students, someone who’ll serve as the district’s stern Frank Castle, its fearless Sydney Bristow. A note to the SRC: Lindy Matsko might soon become available. ■